Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

April 18 2014 3:34 PM

Guardian Interviews Eccentric Co-Architect of CIA's Harsh Interrogation Program

James Elmer Mitchell, one of the co-creators of the CIA’s post-9/11 “harsh interrogation” program,  spoke at length to the Guardian from his home in Land O’ Lakes, Fla. in what is described as the longest interview he’s ever done. This is Mitchell:



He co-designed the United States’ massively controversial “harsh interrogation” program for al-Qaida despite having no experience interrogating criminal suspects or working in intelligence, after which an internal CIA report concluded that he “probably misrepresented” his credentials in order to get the job. Mitchell's interview with the Guardian is something of an attempt to clear his name from "fat guys in the basement" (bloggers) and other critics. He says he never advocated violations of the Geneva Conventions and is a supporter of Amnesty International. He also points out that he definitively did spend time working at the Air Force’s survival school helping teach techniques for withstanding interrogation, which is at least a somewhat plausible qualification for doing the job he did for the CIA.

However, Mitchell also:

—tells the paper that global warming is a myth

—says that working as a bomb defusal technician was good training for his CIA work because bomb technicians learn about the motivations of people who plant bombs in bomb defusal school

—uses the phrase “threat matrix” twice

—calls Obamacare a “shit sandwich”

Whether you believe him or not, Mitchell is certainly an appropriately surreal character to have been involved in the strange and chaotic world of the United States military-industrial complex post-9/11.

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April 18 2014 11:58 AM

Criminal Cab Driver Mastermind (Allegedly) Evaded 3,000 Tolls

This is just impressive work by taxi driver Rodolfo Sanchez of Queens, who's been arrested for evading tolls on the Robert F. Kennedy (formerly Triborough) Bridge.

Prosecutors say Sanchez crossed the bridge more than 3,000 times between 2012 and 2014 by tailgating vehicles as they went through the tolls, thus allowing both vehicles to pass through before the barrier came down.

On one hand, stealing from people is wrong (Sanchez presumably added the amount of the tolls he wasn't actually paying to his passengers' fares) and we as a society need things like tolls so we can maintain our infrastructure, which is crucial to our Competitiveness in a Global Economy. On the other hand, tailgating through a toll booth 3,000 times without once hitting the gate sounds like some nifty drivin'.

April 18 2014 10:01 AM

Avalanche Kills at Least 13 Climbing Guides in Deadliest Day Ever on Mt. Everest

13 Sherpa climbing guides were killed by an avalanche on Mt. Everest Friday morning with three more missing and presumed dead, the worst single-day loss of life in the mountain's history. From the New York Times:

The Sherpas were at an altitude of 5,800 meters, or 19,000 feet, when the avalanche hit, according to Madhu Sudan Burlakoti, joint secretary for the Tourism Ministry. He said that four people were also missing and that six had been injured. Some of the deceased were fixing ropes for climbers.

Everest is 29,000 feet tall, and the disaster occurred below Camp 2—the second of four camps between base camp (which is at around 18,000 feet) and the peak. Per the AP, climbers and guides currently on the mountain are still in a preparatory stage, as weather conditions won't allow them to actually summit the mountain until next month.   

In 1996, eight people died in what had previously been the deadliest incident in Everest history, which was documented in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air.

Update, April 22, 10:35 a.m.: This post has been revised to reflect the latest death toll.

April 17 2014 9:44 PM

Here's How Long That Teen Would Have to Pee in the Portland Reservoir to Make It Unsafe to Drink

Oh, Portland. A teenager urinated into one of the city’s drinking water reservoirs the other day. That’s gross, sure, and aggravating—what a brat! But in one of the most spectacularly stupid decisions in years, the city is going to drain the reservoir. The most spectacularly stupid decision in about three years, anyway—if this sounds familiar, that’s because Portland did the same thing in 2011.

The decision seems to be based on some combination of chemophobia, homeopathy, and pee shame. The dose makes the poison, and clearly this dose is negligible. But is it possible to calculate precisely how illogical Portland’s decision is? Let’s try to put some numbers on it.

Several smart people on Twitter quickly did the math and figured that a typical urination of about 1/8 gallon in a reservoir of 38 million gallons amounts to a concentration of 3 parts per billion. That’s billion with a b. For comparison, the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for arsenic in drinking water—arsenic!—is 10 ppb.

The EPA doesn’t appear to have a limit for urine in drinking water, but it does limit nitrates in drinking water to 10,000 ppb, and urine does contain a lot of nitrogen, so let’s use that as a proxy.

How many times would that teenager have to pee in a Portland reservoir to produce a urine concentration approaching the EPA’s limit for nitrates in drinking water? About 3,333 times.

But of course urine is 95 percent water. (If you’re ever trapped in rubble after a natural disaster, go ahead and drink it.) Only about 2 percent of urine is nitrogen-rich urea. That means he’d have to urinate 166,666 times for the concentration of urea to approach that of the EPA’s limit for nitrates in drinking water.

Since most animals, including idiot teenaged show-offs, take about 21 seconds to urinate, that means he’d have to urinate constantly for 3,500,000 seconds, or about 40 days. Hopefully, he’d have friends constantly supplying him with tasty Portland microbrews.

Needless to say, this doesn’t take into account the fact that the resulting 1.3 million gallons of urine, which again is 95 percent water, would raise the volume of the reservoir. So add another day or two of peeing to really make the water unsafe to drink.

Draining the reservoir is paranoid, illogical, and expensive. But the most frustrating thing to me about the whole episode is that there is actually something Portland could do to its water supply that would have an immediate, positive, and repeatedly scientifically validated impact on public health: Add fluoride. Paranoia is not healthy.

April 17 2014 8:50 PM

X-Men Director Accused of Sexual Abuse of Minor, Victim’s Lawyer Vows to Expose Hollywood “Pedophile Rings”

Bryan Singer, the director-producer behind the X-Men movie franchise has been accused of sexually abusing an aspiring male teenage actor 15 years ago. The allegations came in the form of a federal lawsuit filed on Wednesday by Michael F. Egan III, who claims in the filing that Singer offered him a role in an X-Men film “if he gave in to his sexual demands, while threatening to destroy his career if he didn't,” CNN reports.

Egan, now in his thirties, said on Thursday that he reported the abuse to authorities at the time it occurred, but that it was never pursued by law enforcement. Los Angeles police officials said they were investigating whether a report had been filed. According to the Associated Press, Egan “described abuse he said began when he was 15 years old at the hands of Singer and others. He described being plied with drugs and promises of Hollywood fame while also enduring threats and sexual abuse in Hawaii and Los Angeles over several years.”

Here’s more on the civil suit via the AP:

Egan sued Singer on Wednesday and is seeking more than $75,000 on each of four accusations: intentional infliction of emotional distress, battery, assault and invasion of privacy…The lawsuit was filed in Hawaii, and is possible because of a state law that temporarily suspends the statute of limitations in sex abuse cases. Egan’s lawyer Jeff Herman said Thursday that he planned to file additional lawsuits in Hawaii against other Hollywood figures he said were responsible for abusing underage teens. The attorney would not say who else he planned to sue.

During a press conference on Thursday, Egan’s lawyer, Jeff Herman, said there was a pattern of sexual abuse in Hollywood. “There are these pedophile rings that exist in Hollywood. What I intend to do is draw back a cloak and shine a light on this darkness,” Herman said, according to BuzzFeed. Singer’s lawyer, Marty Singer (no relation), denied the allegations. “It is obvious that this case was filed in an attempt to get publicity at the time when Bryan’s new movie is about to open in a few weeks,” Marty Singer told the AP. Bryan Singer’s latest film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, is scheduled to open in theatres next month.

April 17 2014 6:46 PM

After Stepdaughter Comes Out, Supreme Court Lawyer Who Argued Against Gay Marriage Says His Views Have Evolved

The lawyer who argued before the Supreme Court last year in defense of California’s Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage in the state, says his views on same-sex marriage are evolving. It’s a stunning change of heart from attorney Charles Cooper who argued before the court that same-sex unions weaken marriages between a man and a woman.

The reason behind Cooper’s rethink on the issue is an understandable one—during the high profile case, he learned his stepdaughter was gay. "My views evolve on issues of this kind the same way as other people's do, and how I view this down the road may not be the way I view it now, or how I viewed it ten years ago," Cooper is quoted as saying in an upcoming book, the Associated Press reports. In journalist Jo Becker’s book "Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality," Becker recounts how, as the case rose through the court system, “Cooper's family began to consider the plaintiffs in the case, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, as an inspiration for their daughter,” according to the AP.

With the case resolved, and Prop 8 dismissed by the Supreme Court, signaling a victory for gay rights advocates, Cooper opened up about his evolving personal opinion on gay marriage. Cooper’s stepdaughter plans to marry her partner in Massachusetts this summer. In a statement to the AP: Cooper said his family "is typical of families all across America." "My daughter Ashley's path in life has led her to happiness with a lovely young woman named Casey, and our family and Casey's family are looking forward to celebrating their marriage in just a few weeks," he said.

April 17 2014 6:09 PM

Chelsea Clinton Is Pregnant with Her First Child

It's official: The Clinton bloodline will be extended for at least another generation. At an event for the Clinton Foundation's "No Ceilings: The Full Participation" project on Thursday, Chelsea Clinton announced that she and her husband, hedge fund trader Marc Mezvinsky, are expecting their first child. 

The announcement came as the event was wrapping up, with the former First Daughter saying, "I have one more thing to say very quickly—I just want to thank all of you for being such an inspiration to us and to me in particular. Marc and I are very excited that we have our first child arriving later this year."

The news was "really exciting" for former Secretary of State and Grandmother-to-be Hillary Clinton, about whom Chelsea said "I just hope that I will be as good a mom to my child and hopefully children as my mom was to me."

Terry McAuliffe has begun fundraising for the 2056 election cycle.

This post has been updated.

April 17 2014 5:58 PM

South Carolina Government Freaks Out About Rumor That State Official is an Atheist (Or Maybe Just Jewish)

BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins and Gideon Resnick have the most hilaripressing (hilarious + depressing) piece of the day, about an ongoing South Carolina political feud over whether a state official is atheist (unacceptable) or just Jewish (OK..maybe). The argument, between a state senator and governor Nikki Haley, is taking place via extravagantly punctuated Facebook posts.


The upshot is that no one involved in the conflict except a random libertarian guy on Facebook is making the case that it would be not be a big scandal to have an atheist in state government.

April 17 2014 4:10 PM

With Military Sexual Assault Reforms Sent to House, Senate Will Review Laws Covering Rape on Campus

In the same week that the New York Times published an unsettling piece about the botched investigation of sexual assault allegations against star Florida State football player Jameis Winston, Senator Claire McCaskill is launching an investigation of sexual-assault policies at 350 colleges and universities nationwide—one that comes on the heels of a similar and thusfar-successful effort to reform the military's approach to prosecuting and preventing sexual violence.

McCaskill's initial aim via the 18-page survey is to find out exactly what colleges and universities throughout the country do (or don’t do) in response to reports of rape and sexual assault. The issue of what constitutes an acceptable response in such situations has been a topic of special scrutiny in recent years after a 2011 Obama administration "Dear Colleague" letter to institutions of higher learning prompted many of them to re-assess their policies. But as a legislator, of course, McCaskill has the ability to change, rather than just enforce, current laws. The Senate passed her package of reforms to the military's policies in March; it's now pending before the House.

April 17 2014 2:41 PM

Here Is a Picture of a Huge Orangutan Looking Completely Relaxed in a Doctor's Office

As promised. The picture was taken at a Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme facility in Indonesia. The subject is a 14-year-old male orangutan who'd been found with pellets from an air gun in his body, so it seems possible that he is not in fact having that fun of a time. Here's how to donate to the Programme if you're interested.