Political MoJo

Pete Seeger, RIP. And, By the Way, You Won.

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 10:40 AM EST

Pete Seeger has passed. The obits will call him a legend. But many won't capture an essential quality of the Seeger tale: as he fought for decades to advance political values and an artistic vision, he was hounded for much of that time by fierce enemies (most notably, the FBI and McCarthyites in the 1950s), and he whipped them. He persevered—and he won. He was never silenced. He played his music, protested wrongs, cleaned up the Hudson River, lived his ideas, and came to be celebrated for his devotion to music and principles. His revenge was simple: he kept on singing and, perhaps most important, encouraging others to do so. Seeger triumphed over his foes, not just because he outlived so many but because his voice was more powerful. Below are some thoughts I shared after attending a concert held four years ago to honor Seeger. The original headline for the post was, "Pete Seeger at 90: Surviving—and Winning—the Political Culture War."

After watching Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger lead Barack Obama and hundreds of thousands of others in singing "This Land Is Your Land" at the pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial, I noted that the concert "was a moment of victory in the political cultural war that has gripped the United States since the tumultuous days of the 1960s":

The show at the Lincoln Memorial contained other moments signaling that the cultural civil war that began with the civil rights crusade, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the rise of hippie-dom was done—at least for now—and that the libs had won. Toward the end of the HBO-aired event, Bruce Springsteen, once a greaser-rocker, brought out folk music hero and activist Pete Seeger, once derided by conservatives as a commie, and Seeger led the crowd in "This Land Is Your Land." This song is the liberal national anthem, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a populist-minded response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which was too rah-rah for Guthrie's liking.

Well, Seeger Nation took another victory lap on Sunday night. At Madison Square Garden, a host of musicians (Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Roger McGuinn, Ben Harper, Richie Havens, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, Rep. John Hall, and many others) and a full house feted Seeger on his 90th birthday. Norman Lear read birthday wishes from President Obama. Springsteen elegantly hailed Seeger and declared, "You outlasted the bastards." (If I can find a text of Springsteen's remarks, I will post or link to them.) And Seeger led the crowd for "Amazing Grace" and "This Land Is Your Land." At one point, Seeger, ever-the populist, declared, "There's no such thing as a wrong note as long as you're singing." One musical highlight: Matthews crooning a soulful version of "Rye Whiskey." He noted his first concert as a lad was a Seeger show. (You can see my tweets from SeegerFest here.) The concert was, of course, a benefit--for Seeger's Clearwater outfit, which preserves and protects the Hudson River.

Springsteen was right. Sometimes longevity--just keep on keeping on--is the best revenge. Seeger was once reviled as a no-good commie symp. He almost ended up in jail for defying congressional witch-hunters. Now he's seen a turnabout--one that he has been pushing steadily, inch by inch, note by note, for decades. To every season....

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Did Your Spouse Pay These Guys to Hack Your Email Password?

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 7:00 AM EST

If you're in a monogamous relationship and you come home at 4 a.m. with no explanation, your significant other may wonder where you've been. According to the FBI, some jealous lovers are going straight to the nuclear option: hiring hackers to find your email password. 

On Friday, federal prosecutors charged two Arkansas men, Mark Anthony Townsend and Joshua Alan Tabor, with operating a business that illegally obtained email passwords for customers who hoped to catch cheating spouses. The pair's company, needapassword.com, breached nearly 6,000 email accounts, including some hosted by Google and Yahoo, according to the indictments. Townsend, 49, allegedly established the website, which operated as recently as July 2013 and asked $50 to $350 per password. Tabor, 29, allegedly helped Townsend hack into the accounts. Both men are charged with accessing a protected computer without authorization and facilitating further access by others, a felony that carries a five-year prison sentence.

"Is your spouse cheating with someone? Do you know who they are? You have the right to read the personal thoughts your spouse is writing to others," Townsend and Tabor's website advertised last April, according to the FBI. The men allegedly offered to obtain passwords to Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, Gmail and other accounts. (You can view a version of the site here.) Tabor and Townsend were caught hacking into Yahoo and Gmail accounts, according to the indictments. Attorneys for the two men did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

In the indictments, the FBI notes that the scheme was dependent on a target logging into his or her email and checking it. A Google spokeswoman says that it appears that its servers weren't directly hacked; instead, users' individual Gmail accounts were hijacked using a technique called spear phishing, in which a hacker sends a fake email that tricks an account owner into providing sensitive information. "We have a wide variety of protections in place at all times to guard our users against account hijacking," the Google spokeswoman said. A Yahoo spokeswoman adds, "Yahoo takes the security of our users very seriously."

After gaining access to an email account, the hackers would send a screenshot of the inbox to the customer as proof, and then solicit payment via Paypal for the password, according to the indictment. One bank account the FBI believes to be associated with the defendants received approximately $150,000 in about a year and a half. According to the FBI, Townsend used a computer system that belonged to the fire department in his home town of Cedarville, Arkansas, where he was a volunteer for the local search and rescue team.

The FBI notes that the scheme wasn't always successful: An agent from the Los Angeles field office interviewed a customer identified in the indictment and search warrant as, "J.B.," who suspected her boyfriend of not being faithful. She signed up for the site, but received a message saying that although the site had obtained a password, it wasn't working: "Maybe he typed it wrong or he's suspicious."

The feds aren't just cracking down on people who allegedly do the hacking, they're going after customers too: indictments unrelated to the "needapassword" case were issued last week against three Americans who paid between $1,011 and $21,675 to hackers in order to obtain email passwords.

Read the FBI's search warrant on the case here: 


No Gays in Sochi, But Many Confused Straight People

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 8:24 PM EST

With the Winter Olympics less than two weeks away, Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov told the BBC that there are no gay residents in his city. Meanwhile, despite President Vladimir Putin's anti-gay crackdown, Sochi's two gay clubs are thriving. Watch Pakhomov's comments here:

Here's Why Obama's Surveillance Transparency Deal With Tech Companies Doesn't Matter

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 8:06 PM EST

Update (1/28/14): See below.

On Monday, the Obama Administration announced that it's going to start allowing tech companies to disclose more information about the number of national-security related demands the government makes for user information. On the surface, this seems like a government-transparency victory. But compared to the extensive recommendations made by lawmakers, privacy advocates, and the president's own government surveillance advisory board, the change actually does very little to shed light on the nature or extent of the government's requests for personal data.

Up until now, tech companies have only been allowed to report a very rough figure on the number of national security letters they receive, and the number of users affected. (The FBI and other agencies use these secret requests to force businesses to hand over certain customer records.) Meanwhile, firms like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and others have been forbidden from sharing any information on orders they receive via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. Now, the New York Times reports:

Companies will be able to disclose the existence of FISA court orders. But they must choose between being more specific about the number of demands or about the type of demands. Companies that want to disclose the number of FISA orders and national security letters separately can do so as long as they only publish in increments of 1,000. Or, companies can narrow the figure to increments of 250, but only if they lump FISA court orders and national security letters together.

"It's a pretty absurdly tiny incremental increase in transparency," Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who focuses on privacy and civil liberties issues, tweeted Monday. Not only are tech companies still barred from reporting the government requests they receive in real time—there's a six-month delay—but the information they are now allowed to disclose still tells Americans little about the requests the government is making. For example, the administration's now policy only allows FISA orders to be reported under "content" and "non-content" categories. And the number of accounts affected can still only be disclosed in ranges of 1,000. 

This week, Apple CEO Tim Cook reiterated that, "We need to say what data is being given," after revealing that his company is under a government gag order. The president's surveillance advisory board recommended in December that he reform the process by requiring judicial approval before sending national security letters. (Judicial approval is currently not required.) And members of Congress have introduced a bill that would limit the kinds of records that can be obtained. But the administration has yet to take meaningful steps at surveillance reform.

UPDATE, Tuesday, January 28, 2014: Nate Cardozo, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sent Mother Jones another reason Obama's announcement doesn't go far enough: "The deal won't allow the companies to disclose which legal authorities the government is using in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. We need that information especially, since we're currently trying to reform those very laws. True transparency—as well as the First Amendment—requires that companies be allowed to map the scope of the United States government's surveillance apparatus, including the legal authorities it claims to rely on."

Rand Paul: There's No GOP War on Women, But Remember the Lewinsky Scandal?

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 12:14 PM EST

In 2011, after Republicans in Congress introduced a bill that would ban taxpayer funding for abortions except in cases of "forcible rape," Democrats adopted a new line of attack: the GOP was waging a "war on women." Instead of changing their policies, Republicans changed the subject, arguing that the sexual behavior of individual Democratic politicians—such as Anthony Weiner—proves the GOP "war on women" is a fiction.

On Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) became the latest GOPer to adopt this strategy, arguing on Meet the Press that former President Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky means Democrats are in no place to cry foul about the Republican party platform.

Paul made the comments after host David Gregory highlighted a moment in a September Vogue profile of Paul in which Kelley Paul, the senator's wife, said, "Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky should complicate his return to the White House, even as first spouse. I would say his behavior was predatory, offensive to women."

Gregory asked Paul if Bill Clinton's sexual behavior in the White House would be fair game in a 2016 race involving Hillary Clinton. Here's Paul's response:

I mean, the Democrats, one of their big issues is they have concocted and said Republicans are committing a war on women. One of the workplace laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses shouldn't prey on young interns in their office.

And I think really the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this. He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office. There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior, and it should be something we shouldn't want to associate with people who would take advantage of a young girl in his office.

This isn't having an affair. I mean, this isn't me saying, "Oh, he's had an affair, we shouldn't talk to him." Someone who takes advantage of a young girl in their office? I mean, really. And then they have the gall to stand up and say, "Republicans are having a war on women"?

When Democrats say there's a "war on women," they are not criticizing the personal conduct of GOP lawmakers. They're talking about Republican policymakers' sustained attacks on women's reproductive rights. It's hard to see what Bill Clinton's sexual conduct tells us about today's battles over reproductive rights policy—especially when he hasn't held elected office for nearly fourteen years.

Black Lawmakers Turn Up the Heat On Obama Over Judicial Nominees Who Backed Voter ID Law, Confederate Flag

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 11:44 AM EST

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—a group of African-American lawmakers in the House that defends the interests of minorities and people with low incomes—are planning to publicly chastise President Barack Obama this week over two of his judicial nominees who have backed racially offensive and discriminatory policies, and what they see as a lack of diversity amongst his judicial picks, The Hill reported Sunday.

Obama has confirmed more African-Americans to the federal bench than any other president, but CBC lawmakers see an "appalling lack of African-American representation" amongst Obama's judicial nominees in Southern states such as Georgia, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told The Hill. If Obama's nominees to the federal bench in Georgia are confirmed, there will only be one African-American district court judge in a state where 31 percent of the population is black.

And some of Obama's nominees have "views… that reflect the regressive policies of the past," Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) pointed out in a letter to Senate judiciary chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) earlier this month. Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, who Obama nominated to the US district court for the Northern district of Georgia in December, voted to keep the Confederate battle emblem as a central part of Georgia's state flag when he was a Georgia legislator in the early 2000s. Atlanta attorney Mark Howard Cohen, who Obama nominated to the same court last month, helped defend Georgia's voter ID law, which voting rights advocates say makes it harder for poor people and minorities to vote.

CBC lawmakers and civil rights leaders have been pressuring Obama for months to rethink these nominations, but to no avail. So CBC members are trying another tack. They will hold a press conference this week to bring attention to the issue, and they're mulling an opposition strategy to block the nominees.

"We have very grave concerns [with certain nominees] given disparities that are particularly common in the South," Norton told The Hill. As my colleague Nick Baumann reported last summer, research has shown that the South remains more racist than the North.

So why did the president pick these nominees, especially now that Republicans can no longer filibuster judicial nominees? It has to do with a procedural hurdle called the blue-slip process that functions as a de facto filibuster. Here's how the process works: When the president is floating a potential judicial nomination, the senators from the state where the judge would serve are given a blue slip of paper. If both senators do not return their blue slips, the nominee will not be able to move forward to a vote in the Senate judiciary committee. This allows the GOP to exert significant control over nominees. Georgia's Republican Sens. John Isakson and Saxby Chambliss have used the blue-slip process to delay some of Obama's nominees to their state's northern district court for years. To fill those spots, Obama worked out a deal with the GOP senators that resulted in the nominations of Boggs and Cohen.

In an interview with MSNBC's Adam Serwer earlier this month, a White House official said Obama was not to blame for these nominations, as Republican senators are taking advantage of the blue-slip process. The White House has also pointed out that eighteen percent of confirmed judges under Obama have been black. That number was eight percent under President George W. Bush.  

CBC lawmakers are not impressed. As Scott told The Hill: “Do you think a white president, a George W. Bush, a Republican president—any white president—would appoint these kinds of nominees with the confederate flag background? With the voter suppression background? That White House would have been maimed by people crying out."

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 27, 2014

Mon Jan. 27, 2014 10:48 AM EST

U.S. Marines with Alpha Company, 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, stage Assault Amphibious Vehicle P7A1’s before conducting another splash entry during a training exercise at Onslow Beach aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., Jan. 9, 2014. The training exercise was conducted to practice beach raids for future ship to shore operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher Mendoza/Released)

Watch: 4 Republicans Flub Response to Obama State of the Union

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Marco Rubio getting ready for his State of the Union response last year. Note the lack of a visible source of water.

President Barack Obama is set to deliver his 2014 State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Early leaks suggest a speech that will focus on steps to fight economic inequality, particularly by increasing the minimum wage and expanding universal pre-K. But let's forget all that silly policy gibberish for the moment, and focus on what the State of the Union really means: It means a Republican politician has an unparalleled opportunity to really embarrass herself.

The State of the Union response is typically a plum given to one of the opposition party's up-and-comers, and on Tuesday the honor will go to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the highest ranking woman in the GOP house leadership. But she may want to think twice before celebrating: In recent years, Republicans have found it an unenviable gig, more likely to stall or sink a rising politician than aid their ascent.

The president's speech opens with a long, applauded walk to the podium, along which he can't help but be bear hugged by every random House member. He takes the stage with before a rapturous crowd in a grandeur-filled House chamber, and he will get approximately a gazillion standing ovations.

If you're the responder, that's a tough act to follow. The networks will cut to you standing in a room, usually by yourself, awkwardly staring into a camera. Your speech writers probably had a general sense of what the president was going to say, but without specifics in advance, you'll be left unprepared to rebut his arguments and be forced to speak in broad generalities. It's a setup that makes these speeches droll, bland, and inoffensive affairs.

But that doesn't mean they can't be memorable, as a string of gaffes from Republican responders in the Obama era shows. Here's a brief selection of highlights:

2009: Obama didn't give an official State of the Union address in 2009 since he'd just been inaugurated. But the president did trek down Pennsylvania Avenue to speak before a joint session of congress that had the same pomp and circumstance. Republicans jumped at the opportunity, offering Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal the respondent's slot. Jindal, long talked about as a potential national candidate, fell to earth after the speech. He retread the same-old small-government-is-good arguments in a hackneyed, "amateurish," manner that even disappointed the Fox News crowd. Adding insult to injury, the next night Jimmy Fallon invited Georgia-born actor Jack McBrayer on his show to parody Jindal's speech.

2010: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell got the honors for Obama's first official State of the Union. And McDonnell, who had just been elected governor a few months before, actually gave a compelling speech, generally considered the best response of the Obama years. He ditched the lone-man routine and spoke before a receptive audience in Virginia's capitol building, matching at least a bit of Washington's ceremony. It catapulted his national reputation and fed presidential speculation—speculation that disappeared when his administration became embroiled in corruption charges. Last week, the feds indicted McDonnell and his wife for accepting thousands of dollars worth of luxury gifts from a political supporter seeking favors from his administration.

2011: Rep. Paul Ryan, a good-looking GOP boy wonder, was poised to offer a dynamic alternative vision for the role of government. Instead, the Wisconsin congressman turned in a snoozefest—and was upstaged by another House Republican. Minnesota's Michele Bachmann gave the inaugural "Tea Party Response," a collection of her normal out-there theories. But everyone was too distracted by technical difficulties—she spent the entire speech staring vacantly off camera—to pay much attention to her words.

2013: Last year, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's response gave us the crème de la crème of viral moments. After opening solid, Rubio was making his way through a fine speech until physical discomfort began to set in. He looked visibly uncomfortable, smacking his lips, doubt creeping into his brow. Finally, after speaking for 11 minutes, he caved, the risk of dry mouth too great. He did his best to maintain eye-contact with the camera. But his eyes betrayed panic as he lunged off screen to nab a minute bottle of water and audibly gulp down some relief.

Please enjoy that moment over and over again in full slow motion glory:

Here's to 2014!

Jimmy Fallon Makes Sex Jokes With Mitt Romney As They "Slow Jam the News"

| Sat Jan. 25, 2014 12:54 PM EST

On Friday, Mitt Romney joined Jimmy Fallon and the Roots on NBC's Late Night to "slow jam the news." The main topic of the segment was President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address. Highlights include Fallon making a 47 percent quip, a once-you-go-black-you-never-go-back joke (regarding Romney's loss to President Obama in the 2012 election), and other sex jokes, all while Romney sat behind him.

Watch here:

"President Obama looked the American people up and down and said, 'I'd tap that,'" Fallon says, on the subject of NSA surveillance.

Fallon and the Roots have previously slow-jammed the news with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Obama (Breitbart.com even accused NBC of violating campaign finance law by having the president on to slow-jam the news, a claim that was of course nonsense). Romney's appearance on Friday answers CBS News' nearly two-year-old question, "Will we ever see...Mitt Romney follow in President Obama's footsteps and slow jam the news?"

GOP Congressman Blasts Proposal for Muslim Cemetery

| Fri Jan. 24, 2014 7:08 PM EST

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) is "deeply concerned" about a newly approved plan to build a cemetery for Muslim residents of the central Tennessee city of Murfreesboro. Desjarlais, a doctor who won his seat in 2010 in part because of his outspoken opposition to abortion rights, is best-known nationally for the 2012 revelation that he had urged one of his patients to get an abortion after he impregnated her. He expressed his anxiety about the cemetery project in a post on his Facebook page Friday afternoon. The comment was first noted by the Nashville Scene.

"Unfortunately the Tennessee Religious Freedom Act, passed by the TN General Assembly, may have played a key role in allowing this cemetery to be approved," DesJarlais wrote. "There is a difference between legislation that would protect our religious freedoms and legislation that would allow for the circumvention of laws that other organizations comply with on a daily basis."

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which is building the cemetery, has been a lightning rod for criticism from religious conservatives (including GOP Rep. Diane Black, who represents Murfreesboro), who have accused its members of plotting a stealth jihad against fellow American citizens. In 2010, opponents of a mosque expansion project filed a lawsuit to block it, arguing that the Islamic center was not protected by the First Amendment because Islam is not a real religion. According to the plaintiff's lawyer, the Islamic center would by default promote spousal abuse and pedophilia, which he considered to be core tenets of Islam. The building site was damaged by arson in 2010 before finally opening two years ago.