Sunday, August 28, 2016

Judicial Watch: Who is watching the watchdog?

Who is watching the watchdog?
 Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that bills itself as a nonpartisan, educational organization devoted to holding officials accountable because ‘no one is above the law,’ was founded in 1994. Although it claims to be funded by thousands of individual donations, its biggest donor is the conservative Scaife Foundation, founded by the late conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Its first director was Larry Klayman, a right-wing activist and former Justice Department lawyer, is most noted for the endless filing of lawsuits designed to harass targeted officials and the dozens of lawsuits against the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. He even filed a lawsuit against his own mother.
In the early 2000s, Klayman broke with Judicial Watch and went into private practice, continuing his crusade of law suits and conspiracy theories.
Judicial Watch, however, continues under new management, and although it has taken on the occasional Republican, such as efforts to get Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force meeting minutes, most of the organization’s efforts are still aimed at leftist and liberal organizations, causes, and individuals, including the Obama Administration and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It has been key to the continued flow of ‘news’ about the Clinton Foundation’s influence on the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to access documents, and then providing those documents; or often manipulated versions of them; to the media, which then runs with the story, with no evidence that any attempt is made to verify them or check their veracity. As an example, recent newspaper articles and editorials discussing emails between a Clinton aide and a senior Clinton Foundation official, seemed to indicate that a visa was issued to a UK soccer player based on pressure from the foundation official on behalf of a major donor to the foundation. Left out of some of the news reporting was the fact that the Clinton aide was reluctant to even pursue the issue, and the visa was not issued. One article did mention it, but it was buried deep in the article, and was probably missed by most readers. Judicial Watch is often briefly mentioned in media coverage, but not identified as the major source of the information.
Judicial Watch has also been the driving force behind many of the disclosures regarding the 2013 Benghazi attack and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server when she was secretary of state.
While it calls itself nonpartisan, a look at its web page would seem to tell a different story. The vast majority of its court filings and press releases are anti-Obama, anti-liberal, anti-immigration, and most telling, anti-Clinton. In June, 2016, Charity Navigator, a web site that rates non-profits, gives Judicial Watch an overall rating of 75.28 out of 100, or two stars, and a rating of 74.00 for accountability and transparency. As bad as this is, it’s a significant increase from the 48.50 (no star) rating it got in December 2002.
Given all this, one has to wonder why the media continues to recycle Judicial Watch information with no more fact-checking than it does. The only answer I can come up with is that these are ‘hot’ news items that are guaranteed to attract readers. As long as the good dirt keeps flowing, the stories will continue to run.

If the media is not holding the organization accountable for its actions—who is?

Friday, August 26, 2016

EpiPen price gouging: Big Pharma strikes again!

Big Pharma's like a spider, luring consumers into its web.
 If you watch any TV, you’ve probably seen this ad: two kids talk about their allergies, one from a bee sting, another from peanuts or seafood (I hate to admit it, but I often don’t pay that much attention), a woman talking about ‘never being without her EpiPen, and what is probably a school nurse extolling the virtues of EpiPen for people who suffer from life-threatening allergic reactions. The ad then goes on to tell you how important this life-saving device is, with a few small print warnings about possible adverse reactions that you see (if you look quickly, and that’s usually what I look for) in all pharmaceutical ads.
This ad, though, is more notable for what it doesn’t tell you. For one thing, you need to change the thing annually because after that time it’s not effective, and for another, each refill of a package of two EpiPens costs you $608.68, a more than 400% increase since Mylan acquired the rights to EpiPen in 2007 from Merck-KGaA. Mylan has raised the price of EpiPen several times since the acquisition, but this latest price increase prompted an immediate outcry from politicians and doctors. In response, Mylan has offered to help more patients to cover out-of-pocket costs, but declined to lower the price. Without reading the details of Mylan’s offer, I can bet the fine print will be so detailed that few consumers will qualify, and since Mylan dominates the $1 billion plus market in this type of device, and also excels in lobbying, people who depend on EpiPen will be forced to cough up the money for it. Mylan needs that income, folks. It recently raised its CEO’s base salary to a hefty $1.3 million annually to add to her total compensation of $38.9 million. In order to maintain her lifestyle, they’ll have to sell a lot of the devices, and will probably raise the price yet again when the furor dies down.
Opponents of government involvement in healthcare and health insurance coverage argue that such things should be left to the private sector. Well, if Mylan is any example, we all know what the private sector is focused on, and it’s not the welfare of consumers.

Yet again, Big Pharma is sticking it to all of us. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Clinton Scandals: Parsing Political Punditry

 Benghazi, the emails, and the Clinton Foundation are not the first manufactured scandals the right wing has attempted to hang on Bill and Hillary Clinton. These two have been in the cross-hairs of the right since Clinton was governor of Arkansas, and even then, Hillary was a primary target, even being criticized by some on the right and in the media during the Lewinsky scandal if you can believe that.
There are probably few readers old enough to instantly recognize the term, Whitewater, so a little background is necessary. In March 1992, the New York Times reported that Bill Clinton, then Arkansas governor, and Hillary, a lawyer with a Little Rock law firm, had invested and lost money in Whitewater Development Corporation, an outfit created by their friends James and Susan McDougal, who at the time were under investigation regarding the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, which they owned. L. Jean Lewis, a low-level investigator for Resolution Trust Corporation, who was one of the investigators on the Madison Guaranty case, saw the article and began her own investigation, eventually submitting a criminal referral to the FBI naming Bill and Hillary Clinton as witnesses in the case. The U.S. Attorney in Arkansas and the FBI found no merit in the referral and killed it, but Lewis wouldn’t let go, and the Whitewater scandal took off, with congressional hearings, appointment of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, and the expenditure of around $75 million in taxpayers money, and nothing was found to substantiate Lewis’s belief (or that of the right wing lynch mobs) that the Clintons had knowledge of, or participated in any illegal activity. They had merely done what thousands had done during that period; invested in a real estate deal that tanked. From reading the articles in the Washington Post and New York Times during this expensive debacle, though, you wouldn’t know that.
Fast forward to the present moment, and it’s like déjà vu all over again. First, there was the unfortunate September 11, 2013 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility (often incorrectly identified in news report as an embassy or consulate) in Benghazi, Libya, in which ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The right saw an amazing opportunity to attack President Obama, and Republican representative Daryl Issa took the bit in his teeth and was off and running on a witch hunt that would have almost made Joe McCarthy proud. He was soon replaced by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who started off on an even keel, but quickly showed his wingnut leanings by shifting the attack to secretary of state Hillary Clinton. After months of an expensive public farce, ably abetted by Fox News as well as much of the mainstream media; with accusations flying like confetti at a Mardi Gras parade, it finally sputtered out. First, the first House hearing found that there was no evidence of a cover up, the White House didn’t order military forces to stand down, Clinton did not personally deny security enhancements for the facility at Benghazi, etc., etc., it sort of died an unheralded death.
Not to be undone, GOP teabaggers quickly seized upon Clinton’s use of a private email server, salivating at the prospect of criminal charges. Boy, were they disappointed when FBI director James Comey, while calling the use of the private server unwise and careless, said that there was nothing that would support an indictment. Another juicy scandal bites the dust.
Now, GOP legislators, along with the erstwhile leader of their party, have latched onto the Clinton Foundation, calling it a pay-for-play scheme, with Hillary Clinton selling access to her when she was secretary of state through donations to the foundation founded by Bill Clinton after he ended his second term as president.
This one will only heat up as Election Day approaches, and to understand it—I mean, truly understand it—you’ll need to read everything that appears in the media carefully. You’ll have to parse the political punditry with as much care as you’d scan a contract before signing, because the details are often in the fine print, slightly modified to fit a political agenda, or just plain omitted. I’ll give just one example, so you know what I’m talking about.
My examples come from the August 23, 2016 issue of The Wall Street Journal, a right-leaning newspaper that is unsure of its support for Donald Trump, but definitely doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. On the front page (jumped to A-4) is an article by Rebecca Ballhaus, ‘Emails Seek Clinton Access.’ On page A-9 is an opinion piece by William McGurn (who I assume is employed by WSJ because of his email), entitled, ‘Hillary and Bill Clinton, Inc.’. Both pieces are about the same subject, and reference some of the same events, but in decidedly different ways.
In Ms. Ballhaus’ article there’s the following sentence:  “The new emails show that while Mr. Band sought to pass along the wishes of donors, Ms. Abedin deferred to official channels.” Mr. Band is Doug Band of the Clinton Foundation, and Ms. Abedin is Huma Abedin, an advisor to Hillary Clinton. The donor being referred to is the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, who has donated a significant sum to the Clinton Foundation to fund education programs in Bahrain.  In McGurn’s editorial he has this to say, “Ms. Abedin responded that the prince had sought a meeting through ‘normal’ channels but had been shot down. Less than 48 hours after Mr. Band had asked her, Ms. Abedin responded that “we have reached out through official channels.” The meeting was on. I’m not going to go on record saying that Mr. McGurn played fast and loose with the truth, but here’s what the front page article had to say about that, ‘the crown prince had sought a meeting with Mrs. Clinton the previous week ‘thru normal channels” and that the secretary of state had said she ‘doesn’t want to commit to anything for Thurs or Fri until she knows how she will feel.” Read these carefully, and you’ll see that they convey completely different meanings. But, it gets even better.
Here’s another excerpt from McGurn’s editorial. It isn’t the only favor Mr. Band requested. A month earlier he had emailed Ms. Abedin to ask for her help in getting an English soccer player a visa to the U.S. The player was supposed to come to Las Vegas for a team celebration, but he needed a special interview with the visa section of the American Embassy in London due to a ‘criminal charge’ against him. Because of this, the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif) had refused to intervene. Mr. Band’s email made clear the request was on behalf of Casey Wasserman, a sports and entertainment exec who had contributed between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation via the Wasserman Foundation. McGurn ends this anecdote here, and goes on in his editorial to slam the Clintons for what he calls a pay-for-play operation that’s far worse than anything Donald Trump has ever done (yes, he managed to sneak Trump’s name in). Here, though, is what the Ballhaus article had to say about this same issue: In a separate email exchange, Mr. Band sought Ms. Abedin’s help in obtaining a visa for a member of a U.K. soccer league at the request of Case Wasserman, president of the Wasserman Foundation, which donated between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. “I doubt we can do anything, but maybe we can help with an interview,” Ms. Abedin wrote. “I’ll ask.” She wrote again: “I got this now, makes me nervous to get involved but I’ll ask.” Mr. Band responded: “Then don’t.” A spokesman for Mr. Wasserman said the forwarded email request never resulted in a visa.
See my point? Cherry-picked facts, omitted details, make all the difference in how you interpret an article or editorial, and how many people are as nerdy as me that they’ll compare an editorial with an article on the same subject to spot these kinds of discrepancies? But, if you don’t, you’ll be as misinformed as regular Fox News viewers. This, folks, is how scandals are created.

On a closing note, I’d like to go back to Whitewater. A minor figure in that ‘scandal’, L. Jean Lewis was about as anti-Clinton as could be. She ran an illegal T-shirt business out of her office, selling items that were vulgarly critical of Hillary, and she engaged in on-the-job activity that had her suspended and under internal investigation. But, she was the darling of the rabid right at the time, so special prosecutor Kenneth Starr (who had his own conflict of interest issues) protected her. What became of her, you ask? Shortly after George W. Bush was elected president, L. Jean Lewis, an individual with no previous supervisory experience, was appointed chief of staff for the DOD Inspector General’s Office, overseeing a staff of more than 1,000 people and a multi-million dollar budget. How’s that for pay-for-play?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Zimbabwe: A ticking time bomb in southern Africa

At 92, Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, is the world’s oldest head of state. He has been more or less in charge of the country since its independence in 1980, converting it from the jewel and breadbasket of southern Africa into an economic basket case and a political quagmire. While it can be argued just how ‘in charge’ he has been (and recent events certainly call his  control into question), his ability to manipulate people and events has helped him hang onto his position. 
But, all things, good or bad, have an end point, and Mugabe’s time would appear to be running out. Not just in the sense of the calendar, either, although that is a significant factor, after all, a 92 year-old man with health problems can realistically only look for a few more years. But, it seems that it’s the political clock that’s beginning to toll his final hours. 
After junking its own worthless currency in 2009, and going to the US Dollar as the official currency, Zimbabwe’s economy came out of free fall and enjoyed a few years of relative stability. Not prosperity, or even growth, but at least the hyperinflation was ended, and people were once again able to buy goods from store shelves that for a few years been empty. 
Political violence was rampant during the period 2007-2008, but even that abated somewhat after the political marriage of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, was pushed by South Africa. The one-sided coalition government left most of the power ministries in ZANU-PF hands, with MDC running the soft ministries such as Education and Finance. ZANU-PF ‘won’ the 2013 election, and was able to form a government without the opposition. Since then, things have been sliding downhill, politically and economically. Friction within Mugabe’s party increased, resulting in the ousting of Joice Mujuru, formerly number two in ZANU-PF and one of the country’s vice presidents, from both party and government positions. Mujuru was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, formerly defense minister, and one of the people considered a possible replacement for Mugabe when he’s gone (the other was, not coincidentally, Mujuru). Mujuru has now formed her own party and has been reported to have reached out to the MDC. While political violence since 2009 has been nowhere as rampant as it was in 2008, it has been no less deadly. In 2012, Mujuru’s husband, Solomon Mujuru, a liberation fighter greatly respected by many in the military, and the only person in the country who could stand up to Mugabe, died in a mysterious ‘accidental’ fire. Opposition figures, and those within ZANU-PF who spoke critically of Mugabe have been arrested, beaten, or forced to flee the country Mugabe has appeared increasingly erratic and autocratic. 
Mugabe’s wife, Grace, has inserted herself into politics, and is now pitted against Mnangagwa. One can only speculate as to who among the legions of vultures waiting for Mugabe to die is in her camp. 
To make matters worse, the country’s ‘war’ veterans, those associated with the liberation struggle, who once were among Mugabe’s most vocal supporters, are now railing against him. 
The stable—actually stagnant—economy is also showing signs of trouble. Currency controls are once again in place, limiting the amount that account holders can withdraw from their bank accounts, and some in ZANU-PF are calling for a return to the Zimbabwean Dollar, which would once again plunge the country into an inflationary cycle that could make the 2008 hyperinflation look like a blip on the account books. 
Mugabe has never named a successor, and should he die or become incapacitated before the scheduled 2017 elections, there will be a mad, and probably bloody, scramble to replace him. No matter who wins that battle, the losers will be the people of Zimbabwe, once again caught in a vicious cycle of economic upheaval and political violence. And, the sad thing is that for all the power the West has, or the influence that South Africa thinks it has, there not a damn thing either can do about it. 
Zimbabwe is rarely mentioned in western media until it starts to erupt. I predict that during the next 12 months, though, it will appear often.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Daily Show Launches Its Own Version of Extreme Vetting… of Trump Sup...

The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming

America’s top national security officials are, I’m pretty sure, pretty occupied these days analyzing the existential threats to America’s security. From the depredations of the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East to Donald Trump’s near dismemberment of the Republican Party (yes, folks, distortion of the traditional two-party system in this country does pose a credible threat to our national security) they have enough to keep them busy burning the midnight oil to develop strategies to mitigate these threats.
Another security issue that appears from time to time, usually brief articles on the inside pages of our mainstream media, that also poses, in my humble opinion, a potential threat to our national security, is the rise of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) as a true global power, with global presence and reach.
From its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and other waters on its borders to the presence of its navy in the Gulf of Aden, China is slowly and inexorably inserting itself into global affairs. The latest move should give security officials pause, and it certainly argues for carving out some time to give it the study it richly deserves. In February of this year, the PRC began construction on a bulk and container port in Djibouti, just 8 miles from the base where the US Joint Task Force/Horn of Africa (JTF-HOA) is located. The base is anticipated to be completed next year, and will probably have weapons stores, ship and helicopter maintenance facilities, and even a small unit of Chinese military from which it can support its vessels taking part in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
While China’s participation in the anti-piracy operation was the first significant deployment of Chinese forces outside Asia, this latest move would be the first time China has established a land base outside neighboring or ‘near abroad’ areas, and is a definite signal that the PRC considers itself a global power.
One can only assume at this point what, besides fleet support, this base will be used for, but the fact that China has already conducted joint operations with Djibouti should give some idea. China has significant interests on the African continent, mostly related to access to desired resources. It will now have military influence in close proximity to its areas of economic interest. Whether this influence will be used in ways that might be detrimental to U.S. interest remains to be seen, but it is certainly an issue that is worthy of close study.

Having grown up during the Cold War to the refrain ‘the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming,’ I might be a bit pessimistic about such things. Only the knowledge that the people who have the responsibility to take the necessary actions to ensure our nation’s security are taking this latest move seriously will allay that pessimism.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

SB-11 Brought to you by the Looney Star State

On August 1, 2016, SB-11, the law passed last year by the Republican-dominated Texas legislature, and signed by Governor Greg Abbot (Republican), went into effect. Known as the Campus Carry law, this piece of legislation allows those with concealed carry permits to have them on the campuses of public universities throughout the state, including classrooms, dorms, and professors’ offices. In fact, university officials must have legislative approval of any guns-free zones they designate on their campuses.
As a native of Texas, and someone who grew up around guns, I have no quarrel with the right of rational people to own guns, but this bit of legislative legerdemain strikes me as about the most stupid thing imaginable. Like former Navy SEAL admiral William McRaven, University of Texas System Chancellor, I grew up hunting and target shooting, but a college campus is not the place to have people packing concealed weapons.

There are a number of reasons I think the honorable members of the Lege, as the legislature is fondly called in Texas, are out of their collective minds.

For starters, having it go into effect on the 50th anniversary of the date that Charles Whitman, an engineering student at UT Austin, took several weapons into the tower on the school campus and began a shooting rampage that left 14 dead and 32 wounded. Talk about rubbing salt into old wounds.
On a more contemporary note, can anyone whose head’s not in rectal defilade think it a good idea to allow concealed weapons in a classroom. What happens if a student takes issue with what the professor is saying, or gets into a beef with a fellow student? Oh, and we all know how sedate dorms are. I can just see office hours for some professors now – what was my grad again, prof? Sure you don’t want to rethink that?
The argument put forth for this law is the same old load of crap that’s always used by the gun nuts—it’s to make people safer. Like having more loaded guns in more hands has ever made anyone really safe. Oh, and don’t start with that’s the way it was in the old west. In the real old west, most towns required people to check their guns when they came to town, despite the crap you see in the phony western movies. That’s what the gunfight at the OK Corral was all about, some nuts not wanting to surrender their shootin’ arns, and the law telling them otherwise.

I can only hope that this won’t end in tragedy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but not holding my breath, though. And, I don’t think I’ll be visiting my relatives in Texas any time soon.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

An unusual job for a VP candidate

Mike Pence, GOP VP candidate, spends a lot of his time, according to the WSJ, cleaning up after Donald Trump craps on his fellow Republicans. Bet he didn't see that one coming.