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HHS Tells Congressional Republicans to Grow Up

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 11:13 AM EDT

Today brings a shot across the bow from the Obama administration. Not against Syria, though. It's against congressional Republicans, who sent a letter last week to all the organizations that had won grants to become Obamacare "Navigators." The letter demanded that the grantees answer a long list of questions just as they're ramping up for the October 1 rollout of the exchanges and preparing for their primary task of helping people navigate the various Obamacare websites, explaining the subsidies and benefits, and assisting with signups.

It was pretty plain from the start that Republicans didn't actually have any serious questions for these folks. They just wanted to put yet another roadblock in the way of a successful rollout of Obamacare—and while they're at it, perhaps do a favor for their insurance agent friends who are afraid that navigators might actually provide good advice and allow people to shop around more effectively. So today, Sarah Kliff reports, HHS pre-empted the whole thing with a letter to Republicans answering their questions on behalf of navigators everywhere.

"We are concerned about the timing of your inquiry given its potential to interfere with the Navigators' ability to carry out their crucial efforts in assisting Americans who lack health insurance," wrote Jim Esquea, assistant secretary for legislation at HHS, making it clear that he understood perfectly well that the "potential to interfere" was the whole point of the questionnaire in the first place. He finished off the letter with yet another not-so-subtle fuck you: "We trust that our response fully addresses your questions," he wrote, knowing that Republicans don't actually care about the substance of his answers even an iota. They just thought they were being clever.

Poor Esquea probably had to work the weekend to put all this together, but I suppose that's the life of an assistant secretary for you. What's more interesting, perhaps, is that it's increasingly clear that Republicans have settled on long questionnaires as yet another obstructionist strategy more generally. It began earlier this year in the Senate with a series of insanely long questionnaires for a variety of President Obama's nominees, culminating with the spectacular list of 1,000 questions they had for Gina McCarthy, Obama's nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Apparently everyone was so pleased with how this worked that the House decided to get in on the action too. Thus the smug questionnaire they sent to all the Navigator organizations.

The ball is now back in the Republicans' court, and I have no doubt that we're going to hear plenty of yelps today about how Obama is dissing Congress and is betraying the constitutional separation of powers, etc. etc. The usual. But it won't do any good. They were caught being too clever by half, and they know it.

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The American Public Understands Obama's Position on Syria. They Just Disagree With It.

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 10:04 AM EDT

Greg Sargent notes today the results of a new CNN poll: 82 percent of Americans believe that Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack against his own people. Nonetheless, 59 percent are opposed to U.S. military action against Syria:

What this underscores, again, is that the case against Assad has already been made successfully, and that it isn’t enough. The White House has yet to persuade Americans to accept the underlying rationale behind strikes — that they would deter further attacks, or that the potential upsides of intervening, whatever they are, outweigh the potential risks.

I think that's right. It's not that Obama's case is "muddled" or "weak," or that people aren't paying attention. They know what Assad has done, and they know why Obama wants to launch air strikes against him. They just don't agree. This means that if Obama wants to win over public opinion, a more robust version of his current argument probably will move the needle only a little bit. He needs something different.

However, I'd also draw your attention to this:

The American public may be against air strikes, but generally speaking, they don't really seem to care much. This is both good news and bad for Obama. The good news is that this means most Democrats won't punish their representatives for voting for the war. The bad news is that most Republicans won't punish them for voting against it. The other 42 percent say they might, though frankly I kind of doubt it. Still, I'd sure like to see some crosstabs that tell us the partisan makeup of the 31 percent who are more likely to vote for their representative if they're against a military strike.

Obama's Mixed Message on Syria

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 9:13 AM EDT

President Barack Obama has a tough task this week, as he seeks to win congressional support—particularly among his skeptical Democratic comrades—for a limited military strike on Syria in retaliation for the regime's presumed use of chemical weapons. But as the White House tries to whip up support on Capitol Hill and within the public at large, it is conveying something of a mixed message.

On Monday morning, UN ambassador Samantha Power was on NPR, as part of the administration's full-court press. A onetime journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for a gripping book on modern genocides, Power is a particularly effective spokesperson for Obama on an issue concerning mass murder and humanitarian imperatives. She was asked about GOP Rep. Tom Cole's opposition to the resolution authorizing the president to strike Syria. Cole has argued that the Syria conflict is "particularly intractable and particularly nasty. It's a war on many levels. A civil war, a religious war, a proxy war between the Iranians and the Saudis." He contends that there is "no direct security threat to the United States" or its allies and that limited strikes "are not likely to work." Power replied:

President Obama does not want to get involved in this conflict. He wants to degrade Assad's capability of using his [chemical] weapon[s] and affect his cost-benefit calculus because he will use again and again and again. And it's only a matter time before these weapons will fall into the hands of nonstate actors, again imperiling some of our closest allies in the region, but also in the long term hurting the United States.

The key part of that answer was her assertion that the president seeks to stay out of the conflict in Syria. But that's not what the resolution passed last week by the Senate foreign relations committee says. Section 5 of the resolution presents a "statement of policy":

(a) CHANGING OF MOMENTUM ON BATTLEFIELD.—It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.

(b) DEGRADATION OF ABILITY OF REGIME TO USE WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.—A comprehensive United States strategy in Syria should aim, as part of a coordinated international effort, to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime to use weapons of mass destruction while upgrading the lethal and non-lethal military capabilities of vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.

And Section 6 of the resolution calls for the United States to work for a negotiated political settlement in Syria by providing "all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States."

Though these parts of the resolution are closer to recommendations than authorizations of specific actions, they do put the Obama administration on record as being involved in the conflict, if only by assisting one or more of the warring factions. And, of course, Obama in June authorized the CIA to covertly train and arm supposedly moderate rebel forces in Syria—though the CIA has reportedly not yet begun handing out weapons to opposition forces. (The program may soon be turned over to US special forces.)

So the United States is already involved in the conflict. When Power insists that the president does not want to get involved, what she really means is deeply involved (as in, with combat troops). This parsing shows how complicated the situation is, and how difficult it is for the White House to present a clear message. Obama wants to launch a military assault to deter Assad from the use of chemical weapons, but he doesn't want to defeat Assad; he wants to steer clear of participation in the wider conflict, though he is providing support to players in that ongoing civil war. The White House can certainly defend such a policy, given the complexities of the situation, but it does contain a fair bit of yin and yang. No wonder many of his own Democrats have yet to rally to Obama's call.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 9, 2013

Mon Sep. 9, 2013 8:43 AM EDT

US Soldiers with Echo Company 3-10 General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB), rush off the flight line after a successful Sling Load Training exercise, Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, July 30, 2013. GSAB conducts Sling Load Training biannually. US Army Photo by Spc. Ryan Green.

In Colorado Recall, It's Michael Bloomberg vs. the NRA

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

On Tuesday, voters in two Colorado counties will determine the fates of a pair Democratic state senators who helped push through a slate of gun control legislation last spring. Senate Majority Leader John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron were targeted for recall votes by gun rights activists after supporting legislation that capped magazine capacity at 15 rounds and mandated background checks for all private gun sales. But what started as a genuine grassroots effort born out of anger over the gun vote has grown into something much bigger—a national proxy war on not just gun control but also reproductive rights. (The two Republican challengers who would take office if the recall succeeds have both taken heat for their support of the so-called "personhood" movement, which classifies zygotes as people.)

Not just gun control but reproductive rights are at issue in the Colorado Senate recall.

The results: a flood of outside money. Opponents of the recall have poured more than $2 million into the race so far, almost all of it from out of state. Leading the way is Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy, a pop-up organization that brought in almost all of its money from three sources—California philanthropist Eli Broad ($250,000); the environmental outfit Conservation Colorado ($75,000); and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who chairs a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns and gave $350,000. (In the wake of last year's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Bloomberg pledged to spend $12 million in support of pro-gun control candidates.) Another outfit, We Can Do Better, Colorado, serves as a local front for the DC-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which has poured $300,000 into the race.

5 Toxic Syria Conspiracy Theories

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

As with all American military efforts, proposed or executed, the Obama administration's push for intervention in the Syrian conflict has inspired a rash of conspiracy theorizing. And it's not just crazies on the internet or bloviators on talk radio—it's coming from our elected representatives, too.

Here are some of the worst examples:

1. Assad got his chemical weapons from Saddam!

Rep. Lee Terry
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) Official website

Right before the Obama administration released its assessment of the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians, Rep. Lee Terry went on the radio on August 29 to promote the bogus theory that the Assad regime got its chemical weapons from Saddam Hussein—as in, the chemical weapons the Bush administration couldn't find in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. Here are Terry's comments, as flagged by the Huffington Post:

"The theory then and the evidence was that Iraq was an enemy of the United States and had direct plans in either support of Al Qaeda and/or with other weapons that we found out weren't there—which I still think they were moved to Syria," said Terry. "And it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the chemical weapons that have been used by Syria actually came from Iraq."

[...]

When Becka asked whether Terry's claim about the transfer of weapons was based on information he had received as a member of Congress, Terry replied, "Gut feeling…"

This theory isn't new. Senior Bush administration officials publicly flirted with the idea that Iraq transferred their weapons to other nations before the war, and conservative media has kept the theory on life support over the years. The thing is that there is zero credible evidence that this was ever the case. Rep. Terry's office did not respond to a request for comment on whether or not his "gut feeling" has shifted.

2. Obama is playing Wag the Dog with the Syria stuff.

Rep. Joe Wilson
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) Facebook

At last Wednesday's House hearing, Joe Wilson (the Republican congressman famous for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama) asked if the president's timing was influenced by a desire to cover up bad press for his administration. Wilson asked Secretary of State John Kerry:

With the president's red line, why was there no call for military response in April? Was it delayed to divert attention today from the Benghazi, IRS, NSA scandals, the failure of Obamacare enforcement, the tragedy of the White House-drafted sequestration or the upcoming debt limit vote? Again, why was there no call for a military response four months ago when the president's red line was crossed?

(The Benghazi and IRS accusations have amounted to nothing more than categorical nonscandals, but whatever. Rep. Wilson's office did not respond to Mother Jones' request for comment.)

Watch the video, which includes Kerry's response:

3. "False flag," cries the "intellectual godfather" of the tea party movement.

Ron Paul
Ron Paul. Pete Marovich/ZUMA Press

Former Texas Republican congressman and libertarian hero Ron Paul has jumped on the Bashar-al-Assad-was-set-up bandwagaon.

"I don't think [Assad] is an idiot; I don't think he would do this on purpose in order for the whole world to come down on him," Paul told Fox Business Network's Neil Cavuto on August 28, referring to reports of the Syrian government deploying chemical weapons. "Look how many lies were told to us about Saddam Hussein prior to that build-up. War propaganda: It's endless; it happens all the time."

"I think it's a false flag—I think, really, indeed," Paul emphasized. "And nobody knows; if indeed he was slaughtering people by the thousands, you know, with poison gas…that's a different story. But that isn't the case. Matter of fact, 100,000 deaths are the case…The implication is that Assad committed 100,000 killings. There are a lot of factions out there. Why don't we ask, you know, about the Al Qaeda? Why are we on the side of the Al Qaeda right now?"

Here's the interview:

4. Rush Limbaugh thinks Obama could be behind the whole damn thing.

Rush Limbaugh
rushlimbaugh.com

Prominent right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh (the man who thought Batman was an anti-Mitt Romney cinematic endeavor) unsurprisingly thinks that Obama might have planned the Syrian gas attacks.

"[T]here is evidence, mounting evidence, that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack," Limbaugh said on his September 3 show. "But not only that, that Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan this Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition."

Limbaugh was basing this mainly on an article by Yossef Bodansky titled "Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?" Bodansky is an Assad sympathizer who has suggested that the 1995 Oklahoma bombing was orchestrated by Iran.

5. ISRAEL!

The above clip is from May, when evidence of earlier chemical weapons use in Syria was emerging. Current TV host Cenk Uygur chats with retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, ex-chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson floats the idea that Israel might have done it, without any actual or even flimsy evidence whatsoever:

We don't know what the chain of custody is. This could've been an Israeli false flag operation, it could've been an opposition in Syria…or it could've been an actual use by Bashar al-Assad, but we certainly don't know with the evidence we've been given. And what I'm hearing from the intelligence community is that that evidence is really flakey…I think we've got basically a geostrategically…inept regime in Tel Aviv right now.

To be clear, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that Israeli officials had anything to do with these chemical weapons attacks in Syria—unless you take the word of state-funded Iranian propaganda, that is.

For a few more crazy theories about Syria and chemical weapons, check out this post by Foreign Policy's Elias Groll.

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Let's Please Stop Pretending That Obama is Reluctant to Take Military Action

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 12:05 AM EDT

E.J. Dionne chastises Democrats for not supporting President Obama on Syria:

The wretched experience of Iraq is leading many Democrats to see Obama’s intervention in Syria as little different from what came before. Never mind that the evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people is far clearer than the evidence was about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or that Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up to now.

Wait a second. I realize that Dionne is only talking about Syria here, but in the past five years Obama has (a) escalated twice in Afghanistan, (b) massively ramped up the drone war in Pakistan and expanded it to Yemen, (c) joined NATO's air strikes against Libya, and (d) is now asking Congress to approve a punitive military mission against Syria.

No, none of this matches Iraq in the annals of military folly. And who knows? Maybe history will judge that these were all good decisions. Still, I think it's about time to acknowledge that Obama is hardly "reluctant" to take military action. Neither I nor anyone else will ever know how hard he struggles with these decisions in the innermost recesses of his soul, but in the end he actually seems pretty damn agreeable about taking military action, doesn't he?

Dionne also warns that voting against Obama will damage the rest of his presidency:

It was only a matter of time before our polarized politics threatened to destroy a president’s authority and call into question our country’s ability to act in the world....The question now is whether Congress really wants to incapacitate the president for three long years....The seriousness of this crisis should also push Republicans away from reflexive anti-Obamaism, Rush Limbaugh-style talk-show madness, extreme anti-government rhetoric and threats to shut Washington down.

I agree with Dionne about the shamelessness of big chunks of the Republican opposition. When Obama wanted to stay out of Syria, they spent hours on Fox sputtering about his lack of leadership and insisting that we had to do more to bring down the Assad regime. But now that Obama is proposing to do exactly what they asked for, suddenly they're spending hours on Fox explaining why it would be foolish to enmesh ourselves in a brutal and intractable civil war five thousand miles away. It's pretty stomach turning.

Still, putting our stomachs aside, why would rejecting Obama's request "incapacitate the president for three long years"? I'm not asking this in the usual rhetorical way, where I pretend not to know even though I really do. I'm really asking. Presidents suffer defeats all the time. Obama lost on cap-and-trade. He's lost on plenty of judicial and executive branch nominations. He couldn't get agreement for a grand bargain. He lost on gun control. What's more, Republicans have been opposing him on virtually everything from the day he took office. In what concrete way would a defeat on Syria change this dynamic in even the slightest way?

As for America's ability to act in the world, I really doubt that this vote will be taken as much of a precedent. But if it were, the precedent it sets would be simple: the United States won't undertake military action unless it's so plainly justified that both parties are willing to support it. That would frankly be no bad thing. Unfortunately, once they get in office American presidents of both parties seem to find no end of wars to fight overseas. Reining them in a bit would be commendable.

Season Four of "Boardwalk Empire": More Great Characters, Sleazy Politics, and Racial Tensions

| Sun Sep. 8, 2013 4:11 PM EDT

As much critical acclaim as Boardwalk Empire has garnered over the last three years, there's an argument to be made that the HBO drama remains underrated. The series dialogue is consistently some of the sharpest and memorable on television, almost on a casual basis. The casting, production values, music, and 1920s gangland confrontations are superb. The effortlessness with which the Boardwalk crew juggles seemingly dozens of intersecting storylines is admirable. And the creative involvement of Martin Scorsese (who executive-produced and directed the $18-million pilot episode), author Dennis Lehane, and Terence Winter certainly doesn't hurt.

It's all too easy to take the show's greatness for granted at this point. The fourth season (premiering Sunday, September 8 at 9 p.m. ET/PT) shrewdly advances and improves upon the rich character development and Prohibition-era power struggles of the excellent third season. Nucky (Steve Buscemi), "Chalky" (Michael Kenneth Williams), Capone (Stephen Graham), Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Gillian (Gretchen Mol), and company are back performing another act of their seedy opera of money, sex, booze, and spilled blood. The first five episodes of the new season are as stirring in the hushed violence of tense conversation as they are in the decidedly louder violence of slain mobsters. The season's fifth episode includes one of the most riveting, jaw-dropping death scenes in the history of television.

And Boardwalk Empire has always featured a healthy serving of political content, inspired by true stories of Jazz Age corruption and presidential, federal, and local politics. James Cromwell guest-starred last season as an exceedingly grumpy Andrew Mellon, who was Treasury Secretary under presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. The series also depicts Gaston Means (Stephen Root), a real-life con artist who was tied to crooked politicos during the Harding era.

Season four draws from a similarly shady political history. Al Capone is shown subverting democracy before he becomes the infamous Chicago boss—Capone and his brother Frank (Morgan Spector) harass working-class residents of Cicero, Illinois, to ensure the election of a Republican mayor. It's an exciting subplot based on something that actually happened in the mid-'20s. From History.com:

In 1923, when Chicago elected a reformist mayor who announced that he planned to rid the city of corruption, [Johnny] Torrio and Capone moved their base beyond the city limits to suburban Cicero. But a 1924 mayoral election in Cicero threatened their operations. To ensure they could continue doing business, Torrio and Capone initiated an intimidation effort on the day of the election, March 31, 1924, to guarantee their candidate would get elected. Some voters were even shot and killed.

Even Chicago's tongue-in-cheek political saying, "vote early and vote often," has been attributed to Capone.

This season also introduces Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, a terrific actor who played Colin Powell in W. and blues legend Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records), a Trinidad-born, Harlem-based crime lord who is as ruthless as he is cultured and sophisticated. Narcisse refers to black Americans as "Libyans" and white Americans as "Nordic." He works at the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a once-influential fraternal organization founded by the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Narcisse is a charismatic criminal with "well-formed, proto-black-power politics," as Slate notes. Here's Wright talking to GQ about his character, and the racial politics that come with the territory:

Dr. Narcisse is a doctor of divinity, vice, and chaos. So, he walks into the room and he stirs things up but he's an equal opportunity troublemaker...But his relationship to Chalky is one that's based in the intra-racial relations of the time to a wonderfully detailed extent—at that time, there was something of a great debate within African-American society, among the great thinkers of the past: W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and within the Harlem Renaissance, about what was the way forward. Within that debate were some pretty vicious personal attacks over complexion, politics, between urbane and rural—a lot of those dynamics are fleshed out within the relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky. It even further immerses the storyline in real history.

I'll leave you with the season-four "Kings" trailer, which features Narcisse prominently:

Click here for more TV and film coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

Court Decision Allows NSA to Search its Database for American Records Without a Warrant

| Sun Sep. 8, 2013 12:16 PM EDT

Ellen Nakashima has an oddly downplayed story in the Washington Post today. As we all know, the NSA collects massive amounts of both domestic and foreign communications, which it stores for years. It's allowed to search this database, but under the Bush administration they could only search for names and email addresses of foreign targets. Two years ago, however, the Obama administration got permission to perform searches using the names and email addresses of American residents:

The court decision allowed the NSA “to query the vast majority” of its e-mail and phone call databases using the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of Americans and legal residents without a warrant, according to Bates’s opinion. The queries must be “reasonably likely to yield foreign intelligence information.” And the results are subject to the NSA’s privacy rules.

The court in 2008 imposed a wholesale ban on such searches at the government’s request, said Alex Joel, civil liberties protection officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). The government included this restriction “to remain consistent with NSA policies and procedures that NSA applied to other authorized collection activities,” he said.

But in 2011, to more rapidly and effectively identify relevant foreign intelligence communications, “we did ask the court” to lift the ban, ODNI general counsel Robert S. Litt said in an interview. “We wanted to be able to do it,” he said, referring to the searching of Americans’ communications without a warrant.

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have issued warnings about this, but secrecy rules kept their warnings vague. Now, however, it's public knowledge:

“The [surveillance] Court documents declassified recently show that in late 2011 the court authorized the NSA to conduct warrantless searches of individual Americans’ communications using an authority intended to target only foreigners,” Wyden said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Our intelligence agencies need the authority to target the communications of foreigners, but for government agencies to deliberately read the e-mails or listen to the phone calls of individual Americans, the Constitution requires a warrant.”

Senior administration officials disagree. “If we’re validly targeting foreigners and we happen to collect communications of Americans, we don’t have to close our eyes to that,” Litt said. “I’m not aware of other situations where once we have lawfully collected information, we have to go back and get a warrant to look at the information we’ve already collected.”

So there you have it. When the NSA sweeps up this data in the first place, it says no individualized warrant is necessary because it's merely storing the information, not "collecting" it. Collection only happens when an analyst performs a search and looks at the stored content. But now they're saying that even when analysts explicitly search for U.S. names and get some hits, this means they just "happen to" have collected the communications of Americans. And once that's happened, why should they have to go back and get a warrant for records they just "happen to" have collected? As long as they think it's "reasonably likely" to yield foreign intelligence information, they should be able to go right ahead. And now they can. Lovely.

UPDATE: One reason this might not have gotten a lot of play from the Post is that much of it has been previously reported. There's some new stuff in the Post account, but the basics were reported last month by James Ball and Spencer Ackerman in the Guardian. Click here for the story.

Where Do Millennials Shop For Food?

| Sun Sep. 8, 2013 11:11 AM EDT

The LA Times has an interesting story today about supermarket automation that's worth a read if you're interested in such things. Among other things, I learned what those Powerballish-looking TV screens in my local Albertsons are all about.1 But there was also this:

Grocery stores especially want to appeal to younger shoppers, many of whom tend to avoid traditional supermarkets because they consider them the place their parents shop. One way to woo smartphone-toting millennials is to make grocery shopping more tech-friendly, analysts said.

Since I have long since reached the "get off my lawn" stage of life, this prompted two questions that perhaps my younger readers can answer. First, is it really true that you avoid traditional supermarkets because your parents shopped there? And second, where do you shop instead that doesn't seem like a place your parents would frequent?

1It's QueVision! More here.