2012 - %3, December

David Corn Talks FreedomWorks Feud on Hardball and NPR

Thu Dec. 27, 2012 10:19 AM EST

The drama just won't stop at FreedomWorks. On Monday, Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn revealed that after former GOP Rep. Dick Armey left the tea party group in early December, Armey's allies on the board launched a legal probe into the group, and FreedomWorks' president fired back with allegations that Armey had betrayed the organization's mission. Wednesday, the Washington Post published a riveting account of Armey's alleged attempted coup, complete with a gun-wielding "assistant." And later that day, Corn revealed the identity of that gunman. Corn discussed the scandal on Hardball with Chris Matthews, and with Robert Siegel on NPR. Listen to the NPR segment here. Watch Corn on MSNBC here:

For more of David Corn's stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Congress Says Netflix Can Share What You're Watching

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 6:01 AM EST

When the streaming-video site Netflix suffered an outage on Christmas Eve, millions of Americans confronted the terrifying possibility of an evening of spent talking with their relatives instead of re-watching Die Hard. But Netflix's technical snafu wasn't the only streaming-related news infuriating Americans over the Christmas holiday.

Last Tuesday, the Senate quietly altered a key privacy law, making it much easier for video streaming services like Netflix to share your viewing habits. How quietly? The Senate didn't even hold a recorded vote: The bill was approved by unanimous consent. (Joe Mullin of Ars Technica was among the first to note the vote.) 

Here's what changed. For the last 24 years, ever since a local reporter easily obtained failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's video rental records without his consent, the law has required video rental companies to get your permission each and every time they share information about the movies you rent or buy. Although Bork himself had no respect for the idea of a constitutional right to privacy, part of his legacy ended up being one of the strongest privacy-related laws in the country. 

As of last week, that's all in the past: Video streaming companies that want to share your data now only need to ask for your permission once. After that, they can broadcast your video-watching habits far and wide for up to two years before having to ask again.

If Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) had his way, Americans would have gotten something in return for this reduction in video privacy rights. The law governing law enforcement's access to online material, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), was written when email was a relatively new technology, well before anyone imagined the amount of personal information the average person could store online. The ECPA makes it a trivial matter for law enforcement to access just about any of your personal data stored in the cloud—even without a warrant.

Leahy always supported the video privacy changes. But his version of the Netflix bill, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in late November, would also have updated the ECPA. Civil libertarians saw Leahy's proposal as a trade-off—in exchange for weakening the video privacy law, Congress would strengthen protections for your personal online content, including photo albums, documents, and archived emails. Video-streaming and rental companies wouldn't have to ask permission every time they wanted to share your data, but the feds would have to obtain a warrant to access your online correspondence—just as they must if they want to read the letters in your desk at home.

But the trade-off never happened. Last week, the House passed a version of the video privacy bill without Leahy's added protections. That left Congress with a choice between the House bill, the Senate bill, or a compromise. On Tuesday, the Senate caved and approved the House version of the bill. Why? Because the video streaming and social media companies really, really wanted this change. Media companies have lobbied hard on the measure; Netflix alone spent more than half a million dollars this year lobbying Congress on this and similar proposals

As the Senate was preparing to scrap the video privacy protections, Leahy gave a speech urging Congress to take up his online privacy reforms again next year. But now that Netflix and the media companies have gotten what they wanted, there's no trade to be had. Congress would simply be protecting Americans' privacy of its own initiative, unprompted by any kind of trade-off or by the kind of outrage that Republicans felt when Bork's video rental records were exposed. And as David Petraeus recently learned, not even the CIA director losing his job in the wake of an FBI investigation that led to no actual charges could provoke Congress into updating the country's digital privacy laws. So Leahy's calls for reform appear likely to go unanswered.

The Great Republican Recession of 2013 is Now Five Days Away

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 6:59 PM EST

After the failure of his fiscal cliff negotiations with the White House, followed by his humiliating inability to get even his ridiculous "Plan B" proposal approved by House Republicans, John Boehner gave up and punted the whole thing over to the president and the Senate. Why? Matt Yglesias says Boehner likes the idea because the only way to get anything through the Senate is to compromise with Republicans, which will produce a deal to the right of Obama's current proposal. "Then once something like that difference-splitting bill passes the Senate, Boehner gets to take it up as the new baseline for negotiations and pull the ultimate resolution even further to the right."

True enough. But I doubt this was Boehner's intent from the beginning. Remember that during the debt limit talks last year, Boehner initially handed off negotiating duties to Eric Cantor, hoping that if Cantor signed off on a deal it would get the rest of the tea party caucus to throw in their votes as well. But Cantor double-crossed him after a few weeks, pulling out of the talks and pushing them back in Boehner's lap so that Boehner would have to take the heat for agreeing to any tax increases. But even at that, Boehner didn't give up: he tried to keep negotiating until it became clear that the Cantorites just flatly wouldn't approve any feasible deal. Eventually a deal got done after Mitch McConnell got involved.

We're seeing the same dynamic this time around: Boehner trying to negotiate, but eventually giving up after it became clear that the Cantorites wouldn't agree to any feasible kind of deal. So now he's going back to the debt limit playbook, and hoping that maybe a deal that comes with the imprimatur of Senate Republicans will also get enough Republican votes in the House to pass. Besides, if a deal passes the Senate, that gives him an excuse to bring it to the floor even if it doesn't have the votes of a majority of the Republican caucus.

Now, it's true that Mitch McConnell will almost certainly want to take Obama's most recent proposal and use that as a starting point to move even further rightward:

But that's exactly why Obama would be foolish to take any such thing seriously. Starting in the New Year, the Senate gets more liberal. The House also gets more liberal. And the policy baseline also gets more liberal. The White House isn't going to pull the plug on negotiations, but unless Boehner comes back to the table with something new to say they have no incentive to further weaken their hand.

Yep. However, for PR reasons, Obama has to remain the adult in the room at all times, continuing to negotiate honestly even in the face of seemingly relentless intransigence. No ultimatums, no walking out of talks. But on January 1, taxes on the middle class go up and the economy slowly begins to slide into the great Republican Recession of 2013. That's the leverage that will finally force GOP leaders to get serious. Obama will never say so publicly, but I imagine he knows this perfectly well.

Dick Armey Reveals the Identity of His Mysterious Gunman at FreedomWorks

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 4:52 PM EST

On Wednesday, the Washington Post published a riveting account of the feud within FreedomWorks, disclosing that arch-libertarian Richard Stephenson, a reclusive millionaire, was the secret source of $12 million the tea party group used to help Republican candidates in the fall election. But what grabbed the most attention was the story's recounting of a contentious September 4 meeting in which former GOP Rep. Dick Armey, then the chair of FreedomWorks, brought a gun-wielding "assistant" to the offices of FreedomWorks. Referring to Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, and Adam Brandon, its senior vice president, the newspaper reported:

Richard K. Armey, the group's chairman and a former House majority leader, walked into the group's Capitol Hill offices with his wife, Susan, and an aide holstering a handgun at his waist. The aim was to seize control of the group and expel Armey's enemies: The gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks' top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.

This sort of drama does not happen often in Washington, and the Post did not identify the guy with the gun. But Armey tells Mother Jones that this episode has been hyped up by his FreedomWorks foes, and he says the not-so-mysterious gun-touting assistant was a former Capitol Hill police officer named Beau Singleton, who used to be part of Armey's congressional security detail and who has volunteered his security services to Armey and FreedomWorks for years. "He was well-known to the people at FreedomWorks," Armey says. "He has provided me personal security on many occasions when I was in Washington." Singleton also oversaw security for FreedomWorks in September 2009 when it organized a large rally in Washington. Singleton, Armey says, is authorized to carry a gun, but he does so in a back holster that cannot be seen by an onlooker. "I was unaware he had a gun [at the meeting]," Armey maintains. "He kept it under his coat in the back....But the news looks like Armey came in there like John Dillinger, all guns a-blazing. That was false."

Armey says that his wife, Susan, and his assistant, Jean Campbell, were concerned about a FreedomWorks official losing his temper at this meeting and suggested that Singleton join Armey and the two of them on this trip to the group's office. But he insists there was nothing odd with him showing up at FreedomWorks with Singleton by his side. 

Singleton, 56, confirms Armey's account. He says that he has known Kibbe and Brandon for years and that he had often "been around" at FreedomWorks. He adds that during the meeting between Armey and Kibbe, he "just observed. I was just kind of there…I can't see why they would act like I was menacing." In the Post's account, the unnamed gunman escorted Kibbe and Brandon off the premises, but Singleton says he did no such thing. "Whatever problem they had with FreedomWorks, I had no issues with them…I was not used to get them out of the office." 

This latest tale of the war at FreedomWorks is an indication of how bad the blood has become. This man-with-a-gun story, which would seem to benefit Kibbe's side, comes after Mother Jones revealed that board members C. Boyden Gray and James Burnley IV recently initiated a legal investigation of alleged wrongdoing at FreedomWorks and that Kibbe, in response, drafted a memo accusing Armey, Gray, and Burnley of mounting a "hostile takeover" of the group in order to make it part of the Republican establishment. There's no telling if FreedomWorks, an important outfit for the tea party, can survive this civil war. But there probably are more leaks to come.

A Wee Comparison of Civil Liberties in the United States of America

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 3:12 PM EST

Compare and contrast. Here is how seriously we take civil liberties when the subject can be plausibly labeled terrorism:

[New rules] allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.

Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited.

And here is how seriously we take civil liberties when gun ownership is involved in any way, shape, or form:

Under current laws the bureau is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions....When law enforcement officers recover a gun and serial number, workers at the bureau’s National Tracing Center here — a windowless warehouse-style building on a narrow road outside town — begin making their way through a series of phone calls, asking first the manufacturer, then the wholesaler and finally the dealer to search their files to identify the buyer of the firearm.

....The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, for example, prohibits A.T.F. agents from making more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers. The law also reduced the falsification of records by dealers to a misdemeanor....The most recent Tiahrt amendment, adopted in 2010...requires that records of background checks of gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours of approval. Advocates of tighter regulation say this makes it harder to identify dealers who falsify records or buyers who make “straw” purchases for others.

So that's where we are. The federal government can swoop up enormous databases, keep them for years, and data mine them to its heart's content if it has even the slightest suspicion of terrorist activity. Objections? None to speak of, despite the fact that terrorism claims only a handful of American lives per year. But information related to guns? That couldn't be more different. Background checks are destroyed within 24 hours, serial numbers of firearms aren't kept in a central database at all, and gun dealers can barely even be monitored. All this despite the fact that we record more than 10,000 gun-related homicides every year.

Compare and contrast.

Artificial Intelligence is the Key to Future Growth — Or Stagnation

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 12:59 PM EST

A few days ago Tyler Cowen pointed me to an op-ed by Robert Gordon suggesting that future economic growth will be fairly sluggish. Gordon points out, correctly, that the strong growth of the 20th century was based on two key inventions, electrification and the internal combustion engine, and the thousands of innovations that followed on from those. The computer revolution of the late 20th century just hasn't produced as much innovation, and thus hasn't powered as much growth.

Fair enough, as far as it goes. But what about the future? Here's the nutshell version of Gordon's op-ed:

The first response from skeptics always involves health care....[But] pharmaceutical research appears to be entering a phase of diminishing returns....The fracking revolution and soaring oil and gas production have also excited optimists. But this isn't a source of future economic growth....Another claim by the growth optimists is that 3-D printing and micro-robots will revolutionize manufacturing....Can economic growth be saved by Google's driverless car? This is bizarre ground for optimism, but it is promoted not just by Google's Eric Schmidt but by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Erik Brynjolfsson.

This is very strange. Gordon may be right about all these things, but he rather conspicuously left out the most important future innovation of all: artificial intelligence. You simply can't write about the future of innovation without talking about that. At the very least, you need to acknowledge it, and then explain why you think it will never happen, or why it won't produce a lot of future growth even if it does. But you can't just ignore it and then say there are no grounds for being optimistic about future growth. It would be like writing about the future of sports in 1960 and not bothering to address the possibility that television might have an impact on things.

There are lots of things that might change the future in big ways. Genome sequencing might eventually revolutionize healthcare. Cheap fusion power might revolutionize the energy industry. But as big as those things might be if they come to pass, there's only one near-future invention that has the potential to rival electrification as a source of innovation: artificial intelligence. If you talk about the future without talking about artificial intelligence, you're simply not taking the topic seriously. Gordon does us all a disservice by pretending that it doesn't exist.

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Obama Needs to Nominate a Secretary of Defense. Now.

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 12:25 PM EST

From Robert Wright, on the neocon opposition to Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense:

Some people say Obama will abandon Hagel because he's too busy dealing with the fiscal cliff negotiations. The truth is that if he doesn't stand by Hagel he'll have a weaker hand in the fiscal cliff negotiations, because no one will take his threats seriously.

Personally, I'm agnostic on Hagel, just as I was agnostic about Susan Rice for secretary of state. But I'm also disgusted with the sniveling nature of the opposition to Hagel, just as I was to the smears against Rice. This makes me a Hagel fan despite myself.

If it were up to me, I'd choose a Democrat to lead the Defense Department. Obama has already had a Republican in that position, and I think it's important for him to show that he believes there are plenty of well-qualified Democrats who can run DoD. But that's hardly the most important thing in the world. What's more important, at this point, is making up his mind and demonstrating that he won't cave in every time the nutball right throws a tantrum.

Susan Rice was sui generis. Republicans were obviously on the warpath after their Benghazi freakout failed to deliver them the presidency, and Rice ended up being their scalp. I didn't really blame Obama for testing the waters for a while to figure out just how serious the Republican opposition was. But he can't do this twice. He either needs to nominate Hagel or nominate someone else, and he needs to do it now. He can't leave two major nominees twisting in the wind like this and expect anyone to take him seriously in the future. It's time to show some spine.

Barack Obama's Problem: Fanatic Republicans and Mushball Democrats

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 11:45 AM EST

A lot of people—including me—have argued that President Obama would be better off letting the country sail over the fiscal cliff, at least for a little while. After all, right now tax rates are at low Bush-era levels, so the argument is all about whose taxes will go up. But after January 1, tax rates automatically go up to Clinton-era levels, so the argument suddenly becomes about whose taxes will go down. That's much more fertile ground for an Obama-friendly compromise.

That's the theory, anyway. Today, though, after watching Sen. Kent Conrad (D–ND) publicly cave in on taxes on national TV with virtually no prompting at all, Ezra Klein suggests that Obama's leverage on January 1 might not be as strong as we think:

There are good theoretical arguments that the fiscal cliff's tax hikes gives Democrats the bulk of the leverage, but the White House has watched Senate Democrats fold on taxes again and again and again. They worry that if we go over the fiscal cliff, skittish Senate Democrats will quickly fold before some House-passed plan that raises taxes on income over $750,000, does nothing on stimulus, and sets up a debt-ceiling fight for early next year. The White House thinks it'll be very difficult for them to veto anything Senate Democrats agree to, and so they would prefer to strike the deal themselves rather than getting into a situation where vulnerable Senate Democrats could strike a deal on their behalf.

It turns out that Conrad told Chris Wallace, after literally seconds of badgering, that his ideal compromise would split the difference between Obama's latest proposal and John Boehner's latest proposal. This would produce a plan with more spending cuts than tax hikes, even though Boehner has already publicly agreed to a 1:1 split. If Conrad is willing to give Boehner more than he asked for without any pressure at all, what are the odds that he and his fellow centrists in the Senate would be willing to hold out for more than a few minutes during a real negotiation with the anti-tax zealots in the Republican Party?

Plenty of people have questioned Obama's negotiating skills over the years, and not without cause. But when you're dealing with fanatics in the other party and mushballs in your own, it makes things pretty tough. That's the reality Obama has to deal with.

Dick Armey Leads Armed Coup of Tea Party Group, Gets Bought Off With $8 Million

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 11:08 AM EST

You may have heard about the internal problems at FreedomWorks, one of the country's biggest tea party groups. Long story short, CEO Matt Kibbe (you've probably seen his porkchop sideburns on TV) had a falling out with Dick Armey (one of Newt Gingrich's hatchet men during the Republican Revolution of 1994) over issues that Armey called "matters of principle." Armey eventually received an $8 million golden parachute and is no longer with the organization. But it turns out that Armey's departure was a wee bit more melodramatic than we thought. The Washington Post reports:

The day after Labor Day, just as campaign season was entering its final frenzy, FreedomWorks, the Washington-based tea party organization, went into free fall. Richard K. Armey, the group’s chairman and a former House majority leader, walked into the group’s Capitol Hill offices with his wife, Susan, and an aide holstering a handgun at his waist. The aim was to seize control of the group and expel Armey’s enemies: The gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.

....Until this year, the partnership between Kibbe and Armey worked well....The partnership came to a crashing end when Armey marched into FreedomWorks’s office Sept. 4 with his wife, Susan, executive assistant Jean Campbell and the unidentified man with the gun at his waist — who promptly escorted Kibbe and Brandon out of the building.

....By nearly all accounts, including from those loyal to him, Armey handled his attempted coup badly. Armey says he was stepping in because of ethical breaches by Kibbe and Brandon, accusing them of improperly using FreedomWorks staff resources to produce a book — ironically, named “Hostile Takeover” — for which Kibbe claimed sole credit and was collecting royalties. The use of internal resources for Kibbe’s benefit could jeopardize the group’s nonprofit tax status; the group denies ay impropriety.

I guess we know one thing for sure: Dick Armey believes in the right to keep and bear arms. You never know when you might need to lead an armed coup against your employer, after all.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 26, 2012

Wed Dec. 26, 2012 9:39 AM EST
Recruits from Charlie Company take a moment to rest after completing their last event at The Crucible, Dec. 14, 2012, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C.. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Griffin.