Archive for February, 2009

cambodia-skulls

The Huffington Post published my story on the Khmer Rouge trial getting underway in Cambodia right now.

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine has a special report titled “The Axis of Upheaval,” with in depth articles on the three countries that could be the source of some of the world’s biggest problems.

I was surprised by their selections, since none of them were obvious choices:

  • New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman says Somalia is the most dangerous place on Earth.
  • Economist Moscow bureau chief Arkady Ostrovsky writes about Vladimir Putin and the risks of Russia in these tough economic times.
  • Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones writes about the escalating drug war in Mexico.
  • All of them are must reads.

    money

    Government Executive has this story about a new memo from the OMB listing the requirements for disclosing spending from the stimulus bill, contracting, and risk management.

    While this, and the new recovery.gov website, are great tools in theory for investigative journalists, watchdog groups, and taxpayers to keep an eye on how all this money is being spent, it sounds a little overwhelming. I also have a feeling that the new transparency and disclosure requirements are going to come back and haunt somebody, either in one of the government agencies or the White House or Congress.

    There’s a new sheriff in town at the SEC.

    WASHINGTON (AP) – The Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday named a former federal prosecutor as its new enforcement chief to lead the embattled agency’s drive to strengthen its pursuit of financial fraud.

    Robert Khuzami has been a top legal official on Wall Street at investment firm Deutsche Bank since 2004. Before that he worked for 11 years in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and prosecuted insider trading cases, Ponzi schemes and other financial crimes.

    Khuzami, 52, replaces Linda Thomsen, the SEC enforcement director since May 2005. Her departure was announced last week.

    Thomsen became a lightning rod for criticism over the SEC’s failure to detect the $50 billion Ponzi scheme allegedly run by money manager Bernard Madoff, despite red flags raised to the agency staff by outsiders over the course of a decade.

    The naming of Khuzami by new SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro came two days after the agency accused Texas billionaire R. Allen Stanford in a civil lawsuit of a “massive” $8 billion fraud that lured investors with sham promises of double-digit returns on certificates of deposit.

    Besides leading several major financial fraud cases, Khuzami also prosecuted the “Blind Sheik” Omar Ahmed Ali Abdel Rahman in what was then the largest terrorism trial in U.S. history following the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Ten defendants were convicted of operating a terrorist organization responsible for the bombing, the assassination of Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane, and planning bomb attacks on law enforcement and other high-profile targets.

    Other than Patrick Fitzgerald, I can’t think of another prosecutor who would scare me more if I were under investigation.

    googleearthdrones

    Memo to U.S. military and intelligence agencies: Make sure you block or filter satellite images on Google Earth of your Predator drones when they’re sitting around on a runway in Pakistan.

    Looks like scams in Nigeria aren’t limited to Internet hoaxes.

    The government’s top contractor in Iraq, KBR, Inc., has pleaded guilty to bribing high-level officials in the Nigerian government during a decade-long scheme to win more than $6 billion in overseas construction contracts, federal authorities announced on Wednesday.

    KBR and its former parent company, Halliburton, agreed to pay the government a combined $579 million in fines to settle the criminal and civil charges, the most ever paid by a U.S. firm in a foreign corruption case.

    “Today’s guilty plea by KBR ends one chapter in the department’s long-running investigation of corruption in the award of $6 billion in construction contracts in Nigeria,” said Rita Glavin, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s criminal division. “This bribery scheme involved both senior foreign government officials and KBR corporate executives who took actions to insulate themselves from the reach of U.S. law enforcement.”

    KBR was part of a joint venture of four companies — the other three firms involved were not identified — that was awarded four contracts between 1995 and 2004 to build liquefied natural gas facilities on Bonny Island, Nigeria, on Africa’s West Coast.

    During that time, federal officials said the joint venture paid top officials in the Nigerian government, including members of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, more than $182 million in bribes.

    If this story had come out during 2000 or 2004, the Democrats would have hammered Dick Cheney relentlessly for it, since this happened during his tenure as CEO from 1995 to 2000. The Government Executive story does not mention Cheney, nor does the 51-page plea agreement filed in a Houston federal court, and make no accusations of wrongdoing on his part. Bart Gellman in his exhaustively researched and well written Cheney biography Angler found no evidence that he ever used his position as vice president to benefit Halliburton, which for years was practically the left’s equivalent of the Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda connection.

    Still, both KBR and Halliburton have taken a PR beating in recent years, between this and allegations of overbilling and lousy services in Iraq. Having to pay a $679 million settlement to the Justice Department during these tough economic times cannot be fun for the board or the shareholders.

    Happy Friday the 13th

    Posted: February 13, 2009 in Movies
    Tags: ,

    Everyone’s favorite hockey mask-wearing, machete-wielding homicidal maniac is back.

    Need to hire some security in a war zone? Call Blackwater Xe.

    The scandal-ridden security firm Blackwater USA is officially changing its name effective immediately as the company moves to rebrand itself after being fired last month by the State Department from its job protecting diplomats in Iraq.

    The company will now be known as Xe and hopes to be a “one-stop shopping source for world class services in the fields of security, stability, aviation, training and logistics”, according to a memo sent by company president Gary Jackson to employees today.

    The division that handles the diplomatic protection services will now be known as U.S. Training Center, Inc., but now its primary focus will be operating training facilities, including the flagship campus in North Carolina, according to Jackson. It was that very division that handled Blackwater’s overseas operations, which also faced the most criticism.

    Blackwater has been the target of at least four grand jury investigations and accusations of tax fraud, improper use of force, arms trafficking and overbilling. The firm has denied any wrongdoing.

    The firm is best known for its automatic weapon-brandishing diplomatic protection force in Iraq. Officials there recently refused to license Blackwater to operate in Iraq citing lingering outrage over the September 2007 shooting deaths of 17 civilians by Blackwater guards.

    Five former Blackwater guards have pleaded not guilty to federal charges that include 14 counts of manslaughter and 20 counts of attempted manslaughter. No charges were brought against the corporation.

    As if the name itself were the problem. If they don’t sort through their domestic and international legal messes and take proactive steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again, the name change will mean nothing. At the very minimum, heads need to roll and people need to be held accountable if the company wants to save face and start fresh.

    A classic example of this that I found during the two years that I went to school there was South Central Los Angeles, the area where USC is located. After the 1992 riots, the area was renamed South Los Angeles, because they felt that there was too much of a stigma associated with South Central. The same underlying problems caused by gangs, poverty, drugs and crime are still there. It’s not a war zone by any stretch of the imagination, but the area didn’t turn into Bel Air just because of the name change.

    New Digs

    Posted: February 13, 2009 in Media
    Tags: ,

    TPM alum Greg Sargent has a new gig, blogging The Plum Line as part of the Washington Post’s new WhoRunsGov project, which is basically Wikipedia for Beltway political junkies. Add it to your blogroll.

    Live Performance

    Posted: February 13, 2009 in Music
    Tags: ,

    Chemical Brothers – “Block Rockin’ Beats”