2013 - %3, February

Former Obama Officials Call for Oversight Over Targeted Killing

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 12:11 PM EST
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in 2009.

Two former top Obama administration officials have added their voices to those calling for some form of judicial oversight over the use of targeted killing.

In the New York Times, former Obama acting solicitor general Neal Katyal suggests that a panel of national security staffers could form "a 'national security court' housed within the executive branch itself" that would evaluate targeting decisions, which "would later be given to the Congressional intelligence committees for review."

Among Katyal's key points is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court that approves surveillance on suspected foreign agents, often cited as a model for a potential targeted killing court, rarely refuses the government's requests. "[T]he odds of getting a request rejected, around 1 in 3,000, approximately the same as those of being struck by lightning in one's lifetime," Katyal writes. That of course, hasn't stopped presidents from doing end-runs around it.

Katyal isn't the only Obama official warming to the idea of a targeted killing court. Former Obama defense secretary Robert Gates said during a February 10 interview on CNN (flagged by Jack Goldsmith at Lawfare) that he believes more oversight of the killing of Americans may be warranted. "A panel of three judges or one judge or some—something that would give the American people confidence that there was, in fact, a compelling case to be—to launch an attack against an American citizen...is something worth giving serious consideration to," Gates told CNN.

Americans, however, make up a tiny percentage of the targeted killing program's targets. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reportedly told an audience in his home state Wednesday that the number of casualties from drone strikes was 4,700, far higher than previous estimates collected by the Council on Foreign Relations Micah Zenko, which pegged drone casualties at around 3,500. Of those thousands of casualties, just four are confirmed to be Americans: Terror suspects Kamal DerwishSamir Khan, and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as al-Awlaki's teenage son Abdulrahman, who was never accused of a crime. If some kind of adversarial panel, internal to the executive branch or otherwise, were only to evaluate whether Americans should be placed on the kill list, it wouldn't be very busy. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, for its part, hates the secret court idea, which the ACLU argues may be "intended to limit the executive branch's claimed killing authority, but threatens instead to legitimize it." 

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How Taxpayers Subsidize America's Biggest Banks

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 12:01 PM EST

What's the benefit of being a gigantic bank? Well, for one thing, everyone assumes that if you get into trouble you'll get bailed out by the feds. That makes you safer, and that in turn means you have lower borrowing costs. Bloomberg editors, keying off an IMF report from last year, figure that this implicit subsidy amounts to about 0.8 percent per year:

Small as it might sound, 0.8 percentage point makes a big difference. Multiplied by the total liabilities of the 10 largest U.S. banks by assets, it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of $83 billion a year. To put the figure in perspective, it’s tantamount to the government giving the banks about 3 cents of every tax dollar collected.

The top five banks — JPMorgan, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. — account for $64 billion of the total subsidy, an amount roughly equal to their typical annual profits (see tables for data on individual banks). In other words, the banks occupying the commanding heights of the U.S. financial industry — with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy — would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders.

The chart above shows this graphically. With the exception of Wells Fargo, the biggest banks in America would all be essentially profitless if it weren't for the implicit subsidy that being Too Big To Fail gives them.

Bloomberg recommends that this situation be addressed by requiring big banks to hold far more capital than they do now; putting an end to all speculative trading; and requiring bondholders to take losses when banks run into trouble. These are good ideas, but the latter two, especially, are hard to implement reliably. But there's a fourth option: split up the banks. If they're too big to fail, and everyone knows it, the only real answer is to make them small enough that they can fail. Creditors would then take care of all the rest.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 21, 2013

Thu Feb. 21, 2013 11:11 AM EST

Troopers from 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment conduct a dismounted patrol at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin. Calif. Feb. 14, 2013. Photo by Specialist Adam Hoppe.

 

California Bill Could Outlaw Driving for up to a Week After Smoking Pot

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 8:57 AM EST

If you smoke marijuana in California, there's a chance you may have to wait a week or more before you can drive legally. A bill introduced last week by state Senator Lou Correa, a Democrat from Anaheim, would make it illegal to get behind the wheel if your blood contains "any detectable amount" of cannabis—a drug which, unlike alcohol, can persist in the blood of its users for a week or more after the psychoactive effects have worn off.

"This bill would effectively outlaw EVERY driver who has within recent hours or days used marijuana," California NORML director Dale Gieringer told the East Bay Express.

Explained in 90 Seconds: Permafrost

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Glaciers. They really are the pinup geological formation for climate change. But spare a thought for permafrost. Perma-what? Answer: The gigantic carbon-rich Arctic landmass, that—until recently—has locked away its greenhouse gases in a deep freeze for millennia. That is, until man-made climate change has begun to unlock its CO2 stores, only then to be devoured by methane-spewing organisms. This microbial feast is accelerating climate change. The problem: It's a feedback loop. The hotter it gets, the more the permafrost melts, the more CO2 is emitted. And around and around we go, in a devastating roundabout for Arctic communities and the entire globe. Continuing our "Explained in 90 Seconds" series, here's a primer on permafrost.

More Americans Watch Birds Than Hunt

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 7:01 AM EST

We haven't heard much about hunting during the ongoing debate over gun violence. Perhaps that's because hunting is widely seen as a traditional, enjoyable, and safe pastime, even among the majority of Americans who have never donned camo and hunting orange. Or perhaps that's because most hunters don't need AR-15s or high-capacity magazines. Or perhaps it's because hunters are a minority among the 80 million or so gun-owning Americans.

How many hunters are there? In 2011, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (PDF), 15.7 million Americans older than six went hunting. That's nearly 29 million less than went fishing, and 3 million less than went out to watch birds. Back in 1955, about 10 percent of Americans hunted; today it's around 6 percent. Overall, the number of hunters began to dip in the '90s but has slowly increased in the past few years.

number of US hunters

Who hunts? The FWS's latest survey finds that hunters are 89 percent male and 94 percent white. More than half are 45 or older. Nearly 60 percent live in small metropolitan areas or rural areas. Similarly, about 80 percent of all gun owners are men, and they have been getting older as their numbers have fallen. (Around 35 percent of Americans say they own a gun.) A recent National Rifle Association (NRA) survey of its members found that nearly half identify as hunters and that they, like hunters in general, are largely from small towns and rural areas.

What do they hunt? More than 80 percent of hunters go after big game such as deer and elk. About 4.5 million hunt small game such as squirrels; 2.6 million hunt ducks and other birds, and 2.2 million go after other animals like feral pigs.

What do they shoot? Ninety-three percent of hunters use rifles or shotguns. In 2011, they spent more than $4.3 billion on firearms and ammunition. That makes them a significant part of the nearly $12 billion US firearms market, but they're not driving it. A 2010 survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) found that most Americans buy guns for protection; less than a 30 percent of those who recently bought a gun got it for hunting. Which may explain why the NRA has been focusing less on hunting and more on protecting the market for lucrative assault rifles and handguns. Just 6 percent of semi-automatic rifle owners told the NSSF that they were primarily used for hunting.

reasons for buying gun

How do non-hunters see hunting? In a 2011 NSSF survey, 73 percent of respondents said they had no interest in ever going hunting. Yet even if they don't do it themselves, most Americans have a positive view of hunting: 74 percent said they approve of it. But hunting isn't America's most popular wildlife-related recreational activity: It's fishing, which 98 percent of Americans have no problem with.

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Corn on Hardball: The Great Republican Immigration Divide

Wed Feb. 20, 2013 10:00 PM EST

As the White House works hammers out draft legislation for immigration reform, a sharp divide between moderate republicans and the Tea Party is hardening in Congress. The Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman and DC bureau chief David Corn discuss the GOP's divide over immigration on MSNBC's Hardball:

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Rick Scott's Surprising U-Turn

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 7:15 PM EST

In the current issue of MoJo, Stephanie Mencimer walks us through the destruction wreaked by Florida governor Rick Scott during his past two years of tea party-inspired budget slashing. At the same time that he cut Florida's corporate tax rate, Scott has slashed billions of dollars from education, tried to require welfare recipients to submit to drug tests, turned down federal funds for a high-speed rail project, killed a deal to protect the Everglades, and objected to taking money from any federal program even remotely connected to Obamacare. Naturally that also includes programs directly connected to Obamacare:

Of all the big pots of federal money that Florida has rejected, none quite compares with Scott's moves to block Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid to the working poor. Today, a single parent with two children can't qualify for Medicaid in Florida if she makes more than $3,200 a year—one of the nation's lowest eligibility levels.

....If Florida rejects the Medicaid expansion, state hospitals stand to lose about $654 million a year in federal payments for care to the uninsured—payments that were reduced in Obamacare on the assumption that hospitals would gain revenue by caring for the newly insured. The hospitals, particularly public ones that have already lost $1.5 billion to state budget cuts over the past eight years, have been lobbying hard for the expansion, but tea partiers have been equally vocal, and in June, Scott announced that he would be rejecting the Medicaid expansion. "We don't need to expand a big-government program to provide for everyone's needs," he said. "What we need is to shrink the cost of health care and expand opportunities for people to get a job so more people can afford it."

All of this has made Scott the least popular governor in the country, and Stephanie reports that because of this, "Scott has softened a bit." Today brings the surprising news that apparently Scott has softened more than just a bit:

Gov. Rick Scott announced Wednesday a proposed three-year expansion of Florida's Medicaid program — enrolling an additional one million poor and disabled Floridians beginning next year — after the Obama administration gave the state tentative approval to privatize Medicaid services.

If the Legislature approves, Scott's announcement means the state will extend eligibility in the federal-state program to single people and families earning up to 138 percent of poverty. The state plans to enroll almost all of them, along with the 3.3 million people currently being served by Medicaid, in private HMOs or other doctor-operated networks.

"While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost of new people in Medicaid, I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care," Scott said at a press conference. He added that the expansion would have to be renewed in three years.

This is only a three-year commitment, and it was conditional on Scott's plan to privatize Medicaid. But it's still a surprise for a guy whose approach until now has been modeled after a chain saw. In the end, Florida's hospital industry apparently had more clout than Florida's tea partiers.

Google Knows All, Sees All, Especially if You're Stupid

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 6:39 PM EST

Here's a tip: If you break the law, don't go back to the scene of the crime. You probably already know this from watching cop shows on TV.

Here's a 21st century tip: If you break the law, don't go back to the scene of the crime even virtually. In other words, don't do Google searches for your own misdeeds. Or if you do, go to a public library and do it anonymously. The police, it turns out, apparently have pretty easy access to Google search data and they will use it to collar you. Felix Salmon has more.

10 People You Didn't Realize Were Friends of Hamas

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 6:17 PM EST

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is an honorary director of the Atlantic Council.

Breitbart News editor-at-large Ben Shapiro created a bit of a stir last week when he alleged that Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee to be the next secretary of defense, may have ties to an organization called "Friends of Hamas."

On Wednesday, after reporters at mainstream publications could find no evidence of any such organization even existing, Shapiro* Breitbart News doubled down: "The mainstream media have ignored the fact that at least one prominent supporter of Hamas has donated money to an organization associated with former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE)—namely, the Atlantic Council, which receives support from the Hariri family of Lebanon, whose most prominent member, former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, publicly backs Hamas."

Okay.

The Atlantic Council is, like many such vaguely named D.C. institutions, a repository for pretty much anyone who has ever held a high-ranking foreign policy position in the federal government. If Shapiro is correct, Hagel should be the least of our worries; every administration since the 1960s has been corrupted by Hamas:

Condoleezza Rice: Bush's second secretary of state—and Atlantic Council honorary director—hid her connections to Hamas by refusing to negotiate with it.

William Webster: The only man to ever helm the CIA and the FBI, Webster served under Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush and is an honorary director at the Atlantic Council.

Robert Gates: Gates, an honorary director, was George W. Bush's last Secretary of Defense (and President Obama's first).

James A. Baker, III: An honorary director of the Atlantic Council, Baker served as a chief of staff for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Michael Hayden: Another honorary director, Hayden was a CIA director under George W. Bush.

James Woolsey: President Bill Clinton's CIA director is a member of the Atlantic Council's board of directors. You may have seen him at Big Journalism's sister Breitbart publication, Big Peace.

William H. Taft, IV: "Get on the raft with Taft" was the campaign slogan of this Council director's great-grandfather. You know who else used rafts?

George P. Shultz: Reagan's secretary of state for seven years is an Atlantic Council honorary director.

Henry A. Kissinger: President Richard Nixon's Secretary of State sits on the Atlantic Council board of directors, when he's not busy mentoring Sarah Palin on foreign policy and blaming Hamas for obstructing the peace process.

Rupert Murdoch: Murdoch was the winner of the Atlantic Council's 2008 "Atlantic Council Leadership Award," and is CEO of some small, locally-sourced media co-op you probably haven't heard of. He previously expressed his support for Hamas by accusing the "Jewish-owned press" of being "consistently anti-Israel."

Fortunately, opponents of Hagel have settled on an alternative who could presumably be confirmed without much of a fight: former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy. Even former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who sees the threat of terrorism around every corner, supports Flournoy.

The catch: Flournoy sits on the Atlantic Council's board of directors, too.

*This post originally attributed the article to Shapiro.