2011 - %3, October

Voter Suppression Goes Mainstream

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 12:44 PM EDT

Earlier this year I wrote about "Defunding 2.0," a modern trio of Republican efforts to defund the left and impede people from voting for Democrats. By far the most important part of this effort is voter ID laws designed to make it harder for left-leaning constituencies (students, minorities, the poor) to vote. We're finally starting to see the mainstream media pay some attention to this lately, and today David Savage puts it front and center in the LA Times. His poster child is a recently passed law in Florida:

Early voting was reduced from two weeks to one week. Voting on the Sunday before election day was eliminated. College students face new hurdles if they want to vote away from home. And those who register new voters face the threat of fines for procedural errors, prompting the nonpartisan League of Women Voters to suspend voter registration drives and accuse the Legislature of "reverting to Jim Crow-like tactics."

What is happening in Florida is part of a national trend, as election law has become a fierce partisan battleground. In states where Republicans have taken majority control, they have tightened rules for registering new voters, reduced the time for casting ballots and required voters to show photo identification at the polls. The new restrictions were usually adopted on party-line votes and signed by Republican governors.

....Republican lawmakers say Democrats and minority groups are overreacting. "We're going to have a very tight election here next year, and we need to protect the integrity of the election," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala. "When we looked around, we saw a need for some tightening."

I think we all know exactly what "integrity of the election" means to Rep. Baxley. After all, Florida has only suffered from two types of serious voter fraud in the past decade. The first is absentee ballot fraud, which Florida's bill does nothing to address because absentee voters tend to be upscale and Republican. The second is widespread database errors in 2000 that prevented people from voting. The Florida bill also does nothing about that, because those problems mainly affected Democratic-leaning voters.

So: Florida's bill addresses a problem that's essentially nonexistent, and does so in a way that will likely suppress left-leaning votes. "It could easily decide the outcome," says election law expert Rick Hasen. Conversely, it does nothing to tighten up on areas that actually have caused problems in the past, but that mostly favored right-leaning candidates.

I report, you decide. What do you think the real purpose of Florida's shiny new voter ID law is?

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Afghan Prison Abuses: What Did Americans Know? And When Did They Know It?

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 12:20 PM EDT
Afghan soldiers stand guard at a prison in Kandahar.

In early October, the UN released a report detailing a pattern of abuse taking place in Afghan intelligence agency detention centers, including the vaunted Department 124. The interrogation methods of choice: hanging detainees by their hands for hours, beating them with metal pipes, shocking them with electricity, and twisting their genitals until they passed out. You know, just to soften them up.

Over the past decade, American officials trained (and funded) Afghan intelligence operatives, and transferred prisoners to many of the prisons in question. So the Washington Post's Joshua Partlow and Julie Tate ask: What did they know, and when did they know it?

Department 124 was long sealed off from the outside world; the [International Committee of the Red Cross], the United Nations and other organizations concerned with human rights were barred by Afghan officials from monitoring conditions there.

But American officials frequently went inside, according to Afghan officials and others familiar with the site. U.S. Special Operations troops brought detainees there, and CIA officials met with Department 124’s leadership on a weekly basis, reviewed their interrogation reports and used the intelligence gleaned from interrogations to inform their operations, the officials said.

The detainees’ physical characteristics were entered into an American biometric database. They wore orange jumpsuits—as detainees do at the U.S.-run prison at Bagram air base, but not at other Afghan prisons—and were sometimes hooded, according to an Afghan intelligence official. Seventeen detainees said they had been transferred to the prison by international military forces; the United Nations found "compelling evidence" that those detainees were tortured once they arrived. The detainees told U.N. officials that their interrogators were Afghans.

That such harsh tactics are used to get information and extract confessions is no secret among current and former Afghan intelligence officials. One of them said their CIA partners were "totally aware" of such treatment.

"They work with us every other day, if not every day," another Afghan intelligence official said of the CIA. Because of their close collaboration and the prevalence of beatings, "the CIA guys should have known about it," he said.

American officials deny that they knew the abuse at Department 124 was systematic, and insist that prisoner transfers to the facilities in question were halted whenever allegations of abuse surfaced. In late August, they also promised to begin monitoring the detention centers for potential human rights abuses. But the State Department has yet to implement the program.

Meanwhile, the Post reports that the ICRC had been investigating detainee abuse long before the UN began its investigation in October 2010, issuing warnings to officials from the US embassy and CIA. Human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were reporting on the problem of detainee abuse by Afghan intelligence as far back as 2007.

Aside from the obvious ethical issues this presents for the US, there's also a legal one: According to the Leahy Amendment, the US can't provide military funding to alleged human rights abusers; the State Department is investigating whether or not the law applies in this instance. But even if it does, the US has a history of circumventing the law. And over the past two years, the Obama administration has repeatedly set aside restrictions on military aid to countries that use child soldiers.

Happy 13th Birthday! Now Get Out.

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 11:35 AM EDT

Karl Smith, a man who obviously has too much time on his hands, performs a massive core dump today of stuff he's been thinking about but hasn't had time to blog seriously about. One of them is the question of whether children should be allowed to vote:

Though this seems like a silly issue to a lot of people it's part and parcel of the whole: “are there a such thing as human rights” question.

People often appeal to the immature nature of children. But clearly there are mature children and immature adults. If you draw the dividing line at age then this is a line of convenience.

You can count me among the vast throng that thinks, in general, that this is a silly question. Kids can't vote for the same reason they can't do lots of things: because millions of years of human history informs us that children aren't capable of looking out for themselves. They need adult supervision. We make the same judgment toward others who are deemed unable to look after themselves — the mentally ill, elderly people suffering from dementia, etc. — so this is hardly something unique to children.

Still, at least Karl poses this question in a more interesting way. Using age as a dividing line for adulthood is indeed clean and simple, and for that reason it's convenient. But should kids be able to "test out" of childhood if they want? Maybe allow anyone over the age of 12 to apply for full citizenship and get it if they — what? Pass a test? Demonstrate maturity in some way? Rescue a dog from a burning house? And what about parents? Should they retain responsibility for kids who have been declared adults? Or could they kick their 14-year-old out of the house if they felt like it?

Or is this solely a voting question? That hardly seems worth the trouble, frankly. Maybe the whole 18-year-old thing really is convenient enough that we should just keep it.

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.): "Other Ethnicities" Are Not As "Straight-Forward" as Midwesterners

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 11:01 AM EDT
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.).

It's a little surprising this comment last week from Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) hasn't gotten more attention. Here's Philip Molnar of the Express-Times:

[Local business leader Richard C. Spanier] said the best people to do business with are those in the American Midwest because of their "straight-forward" attitude.

"Other ethnicities are not that way," Garrett said. "They'll say yes to you constantly and then you'll realize they really didn't mean it."

Garrett said after the meeting he meant people in other countries.

The clarification doesn't really make this comment much less bizarre or offensive. (Since when do New Jersey congressmen lionize the honesty of midwesterners, anyway?)

Garrett is no congressional rookie. He was first elected in 2002 and is the "most conservative member of New Jersey's congressional delegation," according to the Almanac of American Politics. Today, he chairs the budget task force for the Republican Study Committee, which is basically a club for the GOP's hard-liners. He's also the chairman of the House subcommittee that's in charge of overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored mortgage giants. 

Garrett's district is around 80 percent white. No word on what percentage of those folks are "straight-forward."

Third American Suicide Bomber Ever Dies In Mogadishu Attack

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 11:00 AM EDT
Isbaheysiga Mosque in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The third American suicide bomber ever died in an attack on African Union troops in Mogadishu Saturday, the New York Times reportsAbdisalan Hussein Ali, like Farah Mohamed Beledi and Shirwa Ahmed, was an American of Somali descent who lived in the Minneapolis-St.Paul area of Minnesota. Ali was one of more than a dozen young Somali-Americans from the area who were recruited by the al-Qaeda affiliated extremist group al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab's success in recruiting young Americans has been a source of frustration for American authorities—at least 19 Somali-Americans were recruited from the United States to fight alongside al-Shabab against the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia and the African Union force, made up mostly of troops from Uganda and Burundi.  Although al-Shabab has yet to launch an attack on the United States, the worry is that the group's uncanny success in radicalizing and recruiting Americans relative to other extremist organizations could someday manifest in attacks here. 

Past military interventions in Somalia in the past have only made things worse. A US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 aimed at dislodging the Islamic Courts Union resulted in the emergence of al-Shabab as it exists today. (As Jeremy Scahill writes, the ICU itself emerged in response to the excesses of American-backed warlords hunting suspected terrorists in the region.) The Transitional Federal Government, which replaced the ICU, ended up being run by a former member of the ICU anyway. Aside from purging Somalia of whatever stability had existed before the invasion, the 2006 operation led to the first and only terrorist group that has ever been able to convince an American citizen to become a suicide bomber. 

Last week, neighboring Kenya invaded Somalia, vowing to stay until, in the words of General Julius Karangi, "we feel safe enough on the common border, then we shall come back." If the history of military interventions in Somalia is any indication, the situation there may only get worse. 

Tea Party Leader to Herman Cain: Do Your Homework

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 10:45 AM EDT

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain was in DC this morning, ostensibly to talk about his "9-9-9" tax plan at the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). While the Washington press corp was circling like vultures in the hopes of getting a crumb of a quote about the sexual harassment allegations now dogging Cain's campaign, tea party activists, who've been some of his strongest supporters, tuned in to actually listen to Cain talk about his policy proposals. And they weren't impressed by with they saw.

During the discussion, Cain was asked a specific question about whether or not his tax plan would lead to double taxation of certain types of income. Cain couldn't answer the question, and deferred to his new economic adviser, Rich Lowrie, an Ohio "wealth management adviser." The deflection outraged Kellen Guida, the founder of the NYC Tea Party who's been active in tea party politics since the movement's beginning. He tweeted angrily:

Later, he added:

Guida told me afterward that he was disappointed with Cain's ability to defend his own, bold tax plan.

Guida says he is not the only person in the tea party movement who wonders about Cain's depth of understanding of major policy issues. "I was on the phone with an organizer the other day who was ranting and raving about his inability to articulate a policy position on anything," he said, explaining that it's becoming a common sentiment among the tea party base, even as Cain is actively trying to engage tea partiers to shore up his ground operation.

Guida thinks that Cain's policy problems may be more damaging than the sexual harassment allegations that have surfaced, which he thinks, on their own, won't have much of an impact on Cain's support among tea partiers. What those allegations will do, he suspects, is exacerbate the problems Cain has in defending his own proposals, as was the case with the tax questions at AEI. "If you’re running for president, you have to be able to answer those questions," he said.

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Axelrod: Are Republicans Deliberately Tanking the Economy?

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 10:37 AM EDT

Via Greg Sargent, here is Obama messaging guru David Axelrod on CNN yesterday talking about Republican unwillingness to do anything that might help the economy:

I think this is something — something different going on right now. When you have the leader — the Republican leader of the Senate say, our number one goal — in the midst of this economy, our number one goal is to defeat the president, and they’re acting like it.

They don’t want to cooperate. They don’t want to help. Even on measures to help the economy that they traditionally have supported before, like a payroll tax cut, like infrastructure, rebuilding our roads and bridges and surface transport. These — so you have to ask a question, are they willing to tear down the economy in order to tear down the president or are they going to cooperate?

So far, various surrogates and Democratic members of Congress have said things like this, but neither Obama nor anyone close to him has gone there. But maybe he should. Here are the famously moderate Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann:

It was perfectly understandable for Obama to try to deliver on his promise of a post-partisan Washington, even if he was naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. But by doing so he paid a tremendous political price....What sense does it make for Obama embrace an agenda without any support on the other side of the aisle, and make nice to a party whose sole objective is to deny him reelection? One should note the reaction, documented by Politico, of a key Republican Senate leadership staffer to Obama’s endorsement of the Gang of Six deficit-reduction framework in July—if Obama is for it, we have to be against it.

Moreover, if there is any hope of achieving bipartisan policy success, it will come from Republicans believing that blocking the president’s initiatives or offers will cause them political harm. Mitch McConnell admitted as much when he acceded to a deal on the debt limit—not because it would avert economic chaos, not because a conciliatory president offered it to him, but because, in his own words, the failure to do so would damage “the Republican brand.” In other words, Obama’s new approach of turning up the heat—by calling out Republicans for their obstruction and their opposition even to ideas they have previously embraced, like a continuing payroll tax cut—actually has more chance of achieving the policy outcomes Brooks wants than his conciliatory approach.

When surrogates and politicos trade charges, it's just grist for he-said-she-said gossip journalism. It doesn't get serious until and unless the president says it. Then it suddenly becomes the topic du jour: the subject of 24/7 cable net coverage, lengthy "analysis" pieces trying to determine if Republicans really do want to wreck the economy, and endless ink on the op-ed page. The result, of course, is that Republicans will have to spend several weeks denying that they want to tank the economy.

I think that would be fun. I would be very happy to see Republicans forced to spend the next several weeks denying that. They're already feeling the heat on this. Maybe it's time for Obama to bring them into the kitchen.

Herman Cain's Other Big Scandal: A Possible IRS Violation

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 10:31 AM EDT
Herman Cain chief-of-staff Mark Block, in a clip from a recent campaign ad.

Washington was in full feeding frenzy mode on Monday over reports that Herman Cain, as president of the National Restaurant Association, had been accused of "unwanted sexual advances" by former female employees. That is, needless to say, bad news for Cain's presidential campaign. But the Milwaukee Journal–Sentinel has its own big investigation this morning that's just as damning, if not more so: Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block, flouted federal elections laws and disclosure requirements by using his own non-profit to essentially fund the campaign for its first few months. The expenditures are documented in the filings of Blocks group, Prosperity USA, but are never mentioned as debts in Cain's own campaign finance filings. Among other things, Prosperity USA paid for iPads, chartered flights, and trips to Vegas for the Cain campaign:

The national election expert who works with GOP candidates said it would be a violation of the tax code for Prosperity USA to advance money to the Cain campaign for these items. She said there also are strict federal election regulations on reporting debts and incurring travel obligations.

"I just don't see how they can justify this," she said. "It's a total mess."

The records suggest that Prosperity USA had been underwriting travel for Cain even before he announced his plans to run for president.

For instance, one document says the group was to be paid $5,000 for the costs associated with Cain's speech in September 2010 to the conservative Right Nation rally in Chicago, an event that the records say Cain attended at the request of Americans for Prosperity. The Cain campaign later used a segment from that speech in a campaign ad.

As a tax-exempt non-profit, Prosperity USA would not have been legally permitted to make donations, either directly or in-kind, to a presidential campaign. As one elections expert told the paper, "If the records accurately reflect what occurred, this is way out of bounds."

The charges are especially noteworthy given Block's own history. He was suspended from participating in any elections in the state of Wisconsin (other than voting, of course) for three years and forced to pay a $15,000 fine after a similar scandal in 1997. In that race, where he worked for a candidate for the state supreme court, he set up a supposedly independent non-profit designed to register voters, but in effect turned it into a campaign organ. It's not quite as salacious as sexual harassment charges, but it's a lot more recent, and suggests a certain carelessness (to be generous) with campaign finance law.

After MoJo Investigation, US Company Admits Its Technology Used in Syria

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 10:20 AM EDT

On October 19, Mother Jones reported that the autocratic Syrian regime was using internet filtering technology produced by a California company, Blue Coat Systems, to aid its crackdown on dissidents. On Saturday, after 10 days of heightened media scrutiny and the launch of a State Department inquiry, the company finally admitted what publicly available electronic records made obvious, telling the Wall Street Journal that Syria did in fact use its products.

A Blue Coat spokesman told Mother Jones that the company never sold its technology to Syria. So how did the equipment get there? Blue Coat told the Journal it's all a big misunderstanding: "[Blue Coat] shipped the Internet 'filtering' devices to Dubai late last year, believing they were destined for a department of the Iraqi government. However, the devices—which can block websites or record when people visit them—made their way to Syria." Of course, selling the technology to Syria—a country subjected to strict sanctions—would violate US law. Blue Coat has told Mother Jones that it does not allow its customers to resell its products to embargoed countries.

Telecomix, a tech activist group, released electronic records in early October that tech experts said proved Syria was using Blue Coat technology to prevent the public from accessing particular websites. Jacob Appelbaum, a tech expert and computer science researcher, told Mother Jones that it was clear the records connected Blue Coat and Syria: "Every IP address in all of the information released is registered in Syria," he said. And Blue Coat's technology can do more than just filter the internet, Appelbaum added: "It's a super policeman with a general warrant who spies on every person, records everything about that person and their activities and then it acts as the judge, jury and executioner." 

Long-time Bachmann Ally Jumps Ship: "Lady, You Stink"

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 9:04 AM EDT

The good news for Michele Bachmann is that she's probably not having as bad of a day as Herman Cain. But that's about it, really. On Saturday, the Minnesota congresswoman sent out an urgent plea to supporters saying that "in order to run a winning campaign we need to raise an additional $50,000 before the end of the month." (That's today.) The latest polls show her at 8 percent in Iowa, a state she needs to win, and just one week earlier, her entire New Hampshire campaign staff quit en masse. Even tea party activists are calling on her to drop out of the race.

And now she has lost the support of one of her longtime allies in her Minnesota district—Bradlee Dean, an anti-gay hair-metal evangelist who Bachmann has raised money for and publicly prayed for. The folks at Dump Bachmann listened to Dean's radio show last week and flagged this nugget, in which Dean rips into Bachmann as just another spineless politician: