2012 - %3, May

John Edwards and Perverted Justice

| Thu May 31, 2012 7:14 PM EDT

I have not watched the Edwards trial and I am not intimately familiar with the details of the evidence. But like Amanda Marcotte, I'm glad he was not convicted. I hope the prosecution decides to let it go. Being a horrible person is not a criminal act. If it were, we wouldn't be able to build enough prisons.

But Amanda explains the real reason why prosecutors should close this case. In this day and age, in this era of obscene electoral profligacy, the pursuit was simply ludicrous:

With the news of Karl Rove crowing about how he intends to spend $1 billion in untraceable funds to beat Obama in 2012, it looks particularly ridiculous for the government to waste resources on a showboat prosecution. Even the conservative news magazine National Review had to denounce the prosecution as a waste. John Edwards has been disgraced, humiliated and run out of politics. Bringing the full force of the law down on him on top of it all just seems greedy.

In my opinion it was a witch trial, done more to exorcise society's demons than to serve as a rational application of the law. Edwards behaved abominably and his life is ruined because of it. But I long ago stopped being shocked by people who, in the midst of personal crisis, behave with a lack of character and morals. I'm afraid that at this stage in my life I've seen too much of it to be so very, very sure that I can sit in judgment from afar.

Arcane federal election law is flouted every single day in ways that seriously threaten our democracy; using it merely to further humiliate an unpopular cad is a serious misuse of resources.  But I suppose we have to give credit where credit is due. Wall Street gamblers and high flying bankers have so far been smart enough not to do the one thing that can get important, high-profile, white males in trouble with the law: get caught paying for unauthorized sex. Other than that, it's clear that pretty much anything goes.

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Will Bill Clinton Help Oust Scott Walker?

| Thu May 31, 2012 6:35 PM EDT

If there's any justice in the universe, Scott Walker will lose his job and never get another one that grants him power over the lives of other people ever again. Unfortunately, evidence of justice in the universe remains inconclusive at best, and downright contradictory at worst. And that's not even taking luck into consideration.

Still, it's probably good news that former president Bill Clinton is on his way to Wisconsin to campaign against the governor, whose anti-worker and anti-beer legislation has led to a recall election in that state.

For one thing, the recall effort is risky. If Democrats fail to unseat Walker on Tuesday, and Tom Barrett is defeated, Republican morale in the state is sure to surge, possibly leading to Wisconsin swinging for Romney in November. Meanwhile Walker will have even more of a mandate to tinker with workers' rights, women's rights, and education than ever before.

The Wisconsin protests last year were huge and impressive, but Walker has remained surprisingly popular. Budget concerns and middle class squabling between public and private sector workers have made Walker's policies more popular than they would be outside of a recession.

Can Bill Clinton work his magic and rally voters to the polls? Maybe. But it's going to be a close one.

Pity Those Media-Pummeled Republicans

| Thu May 31, 2012 4:58 PM EDT

As one who has long found the breathless election coverage of candidates' personal lives to be puerile and voyeuristic, I'd usually be sympathetic to complaints about the "vetting" of Mitt Romney in the media this election cycle. I can't imagine why anyone would want to run for office and put up with it, but then that's why they're them and I'm me.

Nonetheless, this lightning rod of an article from Politico on Thursday about unfair coverage of Romney is a bit much. Particularly this part of it:

Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said the personal coverage of Romney is silly and won't cut it with voters, but that he finds the media inconsistency with regards to covering Obama to be galling.

"These stories are not unusual, except they were never done about then-Senator Obama in 2008," Fleischer said. "The press never ran probing, sneering stories about candidate Obama, and yet The Washington Post and New York Times are on overtime covering who-cares stories about Mitt Romney."

Please spare us the pearl-clutching, Ari. I don't recall hearing any complaints from the former Bush press secretary about the coverage of Al Gore's alleged "Eloise" childhood hotel home (a completely bogus story to boot) and the rest of the disgraceful GOP-fed coverage of that campaign. And Fleischer certainly didn't step up to complain about the front page stories about John Kerry's so-called butler or or his "elite" windsurfing habits. Certainly Kerry's richy-rich wife was spared no mercy.

And it's not true that Obama was "unvetted" (which is a favorite meme lately among the denizens of the right-wing fever swamps—one that ties directly into birtherism, by the way). There were front-page stories about his million-dollar house and his upbringing and his associations with various nefarious characters in Chicago. I don't think anyone can say the media didn't delve into Obama's religious life. It's true that few journalists rushed to Honolulu to examine the kerning on his birth certificate, because there was no reason to. He is, after all, an American.

The difference between the stories about Kerry's and Romney's wealth and Obama's is quite simple: the Obamas weren't wealthy by comparison. (Poor Al Gore was the one who was treated most shabbily, with a GOP-concocted tale of childhood wealth that wasn't true.) And in this campaign, at this time of economic stress, the fact that Romney is extremely wealthy—and from a form of capitalism that is under extreme scrutiny—is a very relevant story. More relevant than usual, I'd say.

The Republicans are playing the refs and they are good at it. (And Politico sure seems to love a polarizing media story, all the more if it implicates its rivals.) But this is one time when a close look at a candidate's wealthy lifestyle and how he acquired it is important. We're in a new gilded age suffering from the aftermath of a Wall Street meltdown perpetrated by wealthy gamblers and vulture capitalists like Mitt Romney. It would be journalistic malpractice not to examine that. If the GOP doesn't want the American people to know that they are in the grips of the wealthy financial elite, perhaps they shouldn't have nominated one of their poster boys as their candidate.

Heather Digby Parton is guest blogging while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

A Victory Against the War on Drugs

| Thu May 31, 2012 4:33 PM EDT

Eight-term incumbent Silvestre Reyes won't be returning to Congress next year. He was ousted from his El Paso district by pro-marijuana legalization candidate Beto O'Rourke. The two Democrats had very different ideas about the war on drugs, and apparently even the above "Just Say No" ad featuring a bunch of small kids is as dated as it is infuriating.

Why infuriating? For those of us who care a great deal about ending the war on drugs, and at the very least ending the federal ban on medical marijuana, the "do it for the children" argument rankles. I can't recall how many times I've heard "the children" invoked when anybody suggests that maybe ending this violent domestic conflict against poor people could actually be really good for everyone, including children.

The war on drugs disproprtionally targets minorities. Communities ravaged by drug use are just as ravaged by the violent conflict that comes from the perpetuation of a black market. It's expensive, and not just for the prison beds and police (though these are extremely expensive). It takes a human toll as well, removing fathers from their children and workers and consumers from the economy, driving away legitimate business investment and replacing it with coercive black market forces, gangs, and so forth. In Mexico, the war on drugs has taken an even bloodier toll, claiming tens of thousands of lives in just the past few years.

The simple answer is to say "I'm fighting to keep drugs illegal for the children." It sounds nice. Drugs are bad, and children are good, and obviously the only way to keep the former out of the hands of the latter is to keep drugs illegal. Right?

Except that it isn't working, and apparently voters in Texas and across the country are starting to figure that out.

Adam Serwer pointed out the other day that Obama actually had a pretty healthy relationship with marijuana as a youth. Many other politicians—including conservative Republican Mitch Daniels—have smoked pot in the past as well, and I'm willing to bet they've all inhaled. This dabbling with drugs didn't hinder their careers or prevent them from attaining higher office—but that's only because they never went to jail for it, and they didn't grow up in communities where the war on drugs has a literal, and not just a figurative, meaning.

The Defense of Marriage Act and States' Rights

| Thu May 31, 2012 3:51 PM EDT

The gay-marriage debate hit a major milestone today. A federal appeals court has found section 3 of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.* The groundbreaking ruling will no doubt end up before the Supreme Court.

Interestingly, the three judge panel was comprised of two Republican appointees. The unanimous decision was made at least partly on federalist, states' rights grounds.

"One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage," Judge Michael Boudin wrote for the court. "Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress' denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest."

Now, there's a dark and a light side to federalism. States' rights—and really, we should put "rights" in quotation marks here—have been an excuse for plenty of atrocities, including slavery and segregation. The states in question are home to plenty of their own tyrannies, great and small.

On the other hand, right now a handful of states have stood in defiance of bad federal laws, including DOMA and the federal ban on medical marijuana. When gay couples married in Massachussettes are denied federal healthcare benefits, or when federal agents take down marijuana dispensaries in California, it's hard not to sympathize with a little federalism. It's a facet of our democracy that has, like democracy itself, been used for good and ill.

In other words, federalist arguments aren't easily dilineated into conservative and liberal camps. I think this actually complicates things for the "traditional marriage" forces. We've already seen some major conservatives like Ted Olson take on the gay-marriage ban in California, and federalist/small govermnet arguments rest at the heart of Olson's case.

These unlikely allies for pro-gay rights activists underscore why I'm mostly optimistic about the future of this country: However messed up the Republican party is, and however out of control the conservative movement may be, American conservatism is still rooted in a version of liberalism. Very little of the European traditionalism that defined conservatives in the past has survived in American conservatism.

Sometimes I think that's part of the reason the conservative movement seems so off-kilter so much of the time—so quick to latch onto strict rhetorical and ideological positions that aren't really guided by a coherent set of principles. But it also means that buried beneath the wreckage of so many contemporary conservative arguments is a strand of liberalism that actually does value progress, individual rights, and equality.

Americans are increasingly becoming more pro-gay rights, and the next generation will be even more so, across all polititical ideologies. Maybe conservative acceptance of gay marriage will be based on federalist or small-government arguments, but I suspect a lot of it will eventually be about freedom.

This post has been updated to clarify the scope of the ruling. Erik Kain is guest blogging this week while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

House GOP's 'Prenatal Nondiscrimination' Bill Fails

| Thu May 31, 2012 3:36 PM EDT
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is the sponsor of the "Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act."

On Thursday, a bunch of white guys in the House tried to pass a bill to end sex discrimination—in the womb, at least. In yet another attempt to limit access to abortions, House Republicans brought the "Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act" (PRENDA) to a vote, touting it as civil rights legislation. But the measure failed to draw the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

Republicans brought up PRENDA under a suspension of the rules, which limited the time for debating the bill and meant it required a much larger majority of votes to pass. The vote was 246-168 in favor, but the bill needed 276 yeas to pass. Twenty Democrats voted for the proposal; just seven Republicans opposed it.

If it had passed, PRENDA would have banned abortions based on gender. A previous version of it included banning abortions based on race, but that was removed. As my colleague Stephanie Mencimer reported last December, such a law would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce and likely unconstitutional. Under the law, medical professionals would be required to report "suspected" discriminatory abortions or face possible criminal charges. The legislation would also allow a woman's partner or parents to sue an abortion provider if they suspect she got an abortion because of the fetus's gender.

Any woman seeking an abortion would be a suspect if the fetus is female—or in other words, all women seeking an abortion are suspects. And under the orginal version of the bill, doctors would have been required to racially profile any woman of color, since they're most definitely carrying a fetus of color and are therefore a suspect. PRENDA would basically amount to trying to enforce a thought-crime, as medical professionals would be expected to somehow determine (maybe with mind-reading?) whether the woman's motivation for getting an abortion was the gender or race of the fetus before they perform the abortion that she has requested. 

The bill was pretty transparently an attempt to make it harder for all women to get any abortion, period. The lawmakers behind it haven't been particularly interested in women or people of color after they exit the womb in the past, opposing measures to require equal pay for women and to renew the Voting Rights Act, and most recently gutting the Violence Against Women Act. And the bill's sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is also behind other congressional attempts to outlaw abortion, including the bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks in Washington, DC.

That is why PRENDA had many reproductive rights groups seeing red. "We oppose sex selection abortion," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards in a statement. "But this bill does nothing to advance protections against discrimination and instead will have the result of further shaming and stigmatizing women." The National Women's Law Center and Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health also released statements condemning the proposed law.

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MoJo’s FBI Informants Story Wins Major International Award

| Thu May 31, 2012 2:00 PM EDT

That clinking sound you hear is the toasting at MoJo's offices at the news that our "Terrorists for the FBI" project has won the international Data Journalism Award in the investigative category. (Read it here.) "This story is, by far, the best investigative piece" among the finalists, the jury said. "It shows the significant effort required to gather large amounts of data, analyze it, and deeply investigate the individual cases. The analysis discovered a clear pattern on how the FBI generated terrorist plots from sting operations. The investigation proves that conclusion, not only with numbers, but also with in depth analysis and reporting in the field."

The result of an 18-month investigation by reporter Trevor Aaronson in collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, the story started from the observation that in many of the high-profile terror prosecutions—the Portland Christmas tree bomber, say, or the Bronx synagogue bomber—it was actually a government informant who provided the jihadist rhetoric, the plot, the money, and even the explosives or weapons. Curious about this pattern, Aaronson reviewed every terror prosecution since 9/11—cases involving 508 defendants in all—and scoured thousands of pages of court documents. Aaronson's data were refined, expanded, and comprehensively fact-checked by a team of reporters and editors, then turned into an online database and compelling visualizations by MoJo's developers and designers.

Among the investigation's findings: 

  • Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations. (For more on the details of those 508 cases, see our charts page and searchable database.)
  • Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
  • With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings. (The exceptions are Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing the New York City subway system in September 2009; Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian who opened fire on the El-Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport; and failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.)
  • In many sting cases, key encounters between the informant and the target were not recorded—making it hard for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their case.
  • Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in court, even when the evidence is thin, that defendants often don't risk a trial.

You can analyze the data yourself (parsing them by, say, state or alleged terrorist group affiliation), view fact sheets on individual defendants, and peruse our interactive charts. And, of course, you can read the other stories in our "Terrorists for the FBI" package, including a profile of radical-turned-informant Brandon Darby, and an investigation of the FBI's "proxy detention" program under which Americans are interrogated, and allegedly tortured, by overseas security forces.

This was a major endeavor for Mother Jones—unlike some of our larger peers, we don't have a roomful of computer-assisted-reporting specialists. Instead, we relied on equal parts shoe-leather and innovation; to be honored for it by our global peers is a dream come true. Follow us at @MonikaBauerlein and @ClaraJeffery as we tweet the World News Summit from Paris, drunk with excitement (and, um, surely nothing else).

Beto O'Rourke: It Wasn't About Drugs

| Thu May 31, 2012 1:24 PM EDT
Texas congressional candidate Beto O'Rourke (D).

Of the 133 incumbent congressmen who have faced primary challenges from non-members so far in 2012, 130 of them have won. On Tuesday, former El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke scored one for the challengers when he knocked off eight-term Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes. It was close—O'Rourke avoided a runoff by just 213 votes—and not entirely expected. As one political consultant told the El Paso Times, "Usually you have to have a gay sex scandal or a federal corruption indictment for an incumbent to lose." Observers, myself included, framed the race in part as a referendum on the Drug War, because of his and Reyes' contrasting viewpoints on federal policy. But in an interview on Wednesday, O'Rourke sought to define the victory in more conventional terms.

"What's interesting is you guys always pick marijuana—I think, frankly, because it's sensational and it's kind of exciting to people," O'Rourke says, referring to my profile of the race and a similar piece in the Huffington Post. "It has not once been an issue of any significance at all. Call 100 El Pasoans and you might find two or three who made their decision based on that issue." Instead, he says, he won by emphasizing a bread-and-butter economic agenda. "They were the issues that you might not be surprised but are the same anywhere," he says. "We have 10 percent unemployment [and] more than 30,000 people out of work. We have a V.A. that is supposed to serve nearly 80,000 veterans. It was recently ranked the worst in the country. People can't get in to see the doctor; they can't get the care they deserve. We need a full service V.A. hospital."

But the idea that the War on Drugs could be a non-issue in the primary is itself noteworthy. For years, drug policy has been a third rail, and O'Rourke hopped all over it. It's the subject of his 2011 book, Dealing Death and Drugs, and was the impetus behind his only major showdown with Reyes prior to campaign—the congressman's behind-the-scenes efforts to scuttle a city council resolution calling for a re-examination of the War on Drugs (as detailed in my earlier piece). Reyes tried very hard to make O'Rourke's views on marijuana a factor in the race, but it didn't catch.

"What [Reyes] did, as you know, is took a principled position that many of us have in this community about the fact that the Drug war has failed us and particularly failed Ciudad Juarez and our effort to find something better for everyone who's affected by this failure, and made it about 'Beto wants your kids to take drugs,' 'Beto wants to legalize drugs,'" O'Rourke says. "One of his surrogates who stood in for him at a debate said that I wanted to legalize crack cocaine. So he tried to but people are smarter than that, the voters are smarter than that and they see through to what the real issues are..."

O'Rourke's campaign had some help in the final week of the campaign from the anti-incumbent super-PAC, Campaign for Primary Accountability, whose attack ads Reyes blamed for his defeat. O'Rourke demurred when asked about the group's influence, noting that exit polls conducted during early voting—before the CFPA revved up its ad campaign—showed O'Rourke beating Reyes at a clip nearly identical to the final margin. Still, in a race that close, the PAC didn't need to move mountains—only a couple hundred votes.

O'Rourke will face businesswoman Barbara Carrasco, the Republican nominee, in the November election, but he's widely expected to cruise to victory in a district that gave 66 percent of the vote to President Obama four years ago.

Why the FDA's "High Fructose Corn Syrup Isn't Sugar" Verdict Doesn't Matter

| Thu May 31, 2012 1:19 PM EDT

Today, the FDA told the Corn Refiners (the good people behind that awesomely audacious series of ads about how corn syrup is natural) that they're not allowed to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar." Consumers Union cheered the ruling, stating in a press release that "If the name had been changed, it would have given consumers the wrong impression that this product is 'natural.'" Which it's definitely not.

I'm probably going to take a lot of flack for this, but I don't think the ruling makes a lot of difference one way or the other. Sure, it's nice to make the industry come clean about products that are heavily chemically processed (though cane sugar processing is hardly chemical-free), but the real problem with sweeteners is not quality but quantity. As I've said before, Americans eat too many sweeteners, period. And in excess, HFCS and sugar do the same bad things to your body: They can trigger insulin resistance and lead to a whole host of metabolic problems.

The HFCS verdict is sure to please the sugar refiners, who aren't exactly small-batch artisenal craftsmen. In fact, the two industries have been locked in a decades-long PR battle, of which this is just the latest skirmish. I'm not saying that today's ruling is a bad thing; there are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to be wary of HFCS—most recently, the stuff has been linked to memory loss. But just because cane sugar gets to be called "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you.

Okay, done ranting, you can go back to eating your cupcake now. 

Toxic Flame Retardants: Now In Your Food

| Thu May 31, 2012 12:57 PM EDT

Flame retardants are everywhere—in our TVs and other electronics, in couches and chairs, and even in pajamas other products designed for babies. They're even in our bodies—and at higher rates for minority children, according to one recent study. Apparently these toxic chemicals are also finding their way into our food, according to a new paper published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Researchers tested foods like fish, beef, and deli meats from a local grocery stores in Dallas, Texas. They found that 15 of the 36 foods they tested had detectable levels of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a brominated flame retardant often found in insulation and electrical equipment. HBCD has been linked to problems in the immune and reproductive systems and endocrine disruption, and has been found to cause neurotoxic effects in children. It is considered a "persistent organic pollutant" because it sticks around the environment for a long time, is toxic, and can travel over long distances. This is why chemicals from an electronics manufacturer can end up in waterways—and in fish—a long way away.

"It's getting into us, and some of it is getting into us from food," Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and lead author of the paper, told Mother Jones. Schecter has previously studied levels of HBCD and other similar chemicals in humans, and says that what worries him most is not just finding the presence of this particular chemical, but the cumulative impact of a variety of toxic chemicals in our environment.

"What concerns me is that many of the toxic chemicals we're looking for, we're finding," said Schecter. "It isn't just this one. This is part of a mixture of toxic chemicals we're finding and reporting in food, and also breast milk and blood."

The highest levels of the chemical were found in canned sardines, followed by smoked turkey sausages and fresh salmon. Schecter said animal products were most likely to carry the chemicals, because it accumulates in fatty tissue.

Flame retardants have been all over the news recently, after the Chicago Tribune's devastating series of stories detailing the politics and science of these chemicals. Previous studies have documented that they're in out blood, body fat, and in breast milk, but this is the first study in the US investigating whether these chemicals are making their way into the food chain.

The US has started phasing out some flame retardants linked to health problems, like those that contain polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). But it has not done so with HBCDs, the kind in this latest study. Recent studies about health impacts did prompt the US EPA to add it to its list of "Chemicals of Concern" in 2010. Earlier this year the European Union listed it as a chemical of "very high concern" and said it plans to ban it in the next three to five years.

As for what to do, Schecter says that eating less animal products is a good way to avoid the chemicals. "We're eating too much animals and too little fruits and vegetables," said Schecter. "For lots of reasons its good to eat less animals than the average American." He noted that he does like hamburgers however, and suggested buying leaner meats and broiling them if you're going to keep eating them.