If this were a Hardy Boys book, it would be The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of the Porn Stars' Disappearing Bank Accounts.
Last month, porn star Teagan Presley told Vice that JPMorgan Chase & Co. closed her account because the bank considered her "high-risk." Then, on Wednesday, porn director David Lord told the Daily Beast that Chase sent him a letter notifying him that the bank was going to close his account on May 11. The Beast and Vice suggested that a secretive Justice Department program, "Operation Choke Point," was behind the account closures. But a Chase insider familiar with the matter says that the initiative has nothing to do with the termination of these accounts.
"This has nothing to do with Operation Choke Point," the source told Mother Jones. "There's not a targeted effort to exit consumers' accounts because of an affiliation with an industry [and] we have no policy that would prohibit a consumer from having a checking account because of an affiliation with this industry. We routinely exit consumers for a variety of reasons. For privacy reasons we can't get into why."
The porn stars' allegations play into a narrative—pushed by banks and congressional Republicans—that the Obama administration is overstretching its authority by forcing banks to police the free market. Here's the real story:
What is Operation Choke Point? Operation Choke Point is a federal initiative that aims to crack down on fraud by honing in on banks and payment processors—the companies that serve as middlemen between merchants and banks on credit card transactions. Financial institutions are not supposed to do business with companies they believe might be breaking the law. But Justice Department officials suspect that some payment processors ignore signs of fraud—like high percentages of transactions being rejected as unauthorized—in transactions they process, and banks go along for the ride, earning massive profits.
The Justice Department has already filed one lawsuit under the program. In January, the government sued Four Oaks Bank in North Carolina, charging that it "knew or was deliberately ignorant" that it was working with a company that processed payments for merchants who were breaking the law. According to the lawsuit, Four Oaks worked with a Texas-based payment processor that processed about $2.4 billion in transactions on behalf of fraudulent payday lenders, internet gambling entities, and a Ponzi fraud scheme. The processor then allegedly paid Four Oaks more than $850,000 in fees. (In April, Four Oaks reached a $1.2 million settlement with the government, but did not admit wrongdoing.)
President Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, headed by the Department of Justice, is behind the program. Michael Bresnick, who runs the task force, made the program public last March. He says that the aim is to "close the access to the banking system that mass marketing fraudsters enjoy—effectively putting a chokehold on it."
Is this the first time that feds have asked banks to keep an eye on their customers? No. The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 requires financial institutions to assist the feds in preventing money laundering, which includes scrutinizing customers. However, banks argue that Operation Choke Point goes further than that law.
Does Operation Choke Point include a "blacklist" of businesses or individuals the government is requiring banks to target? Not exactly. Last September, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation issued updated regulatory guidelines noting that "facilitating payment processing for merchant customers engaged in higher-risk activities can pose risks to financial institutions." A footnote in the guidelines linked to a list of products and services, published in 2011, that the feds say have been associated with high-risk activity, including get-rich products, drug paraphernalia, escort services, firearm sales, pornography, and racist materials. But the September guidance makes clear that financial institutions that "properly manage these relationships and risks are neither prohibited nor discouraged from providing payment processing services to customers operating in compliance with applicable law." In other words, the guidance requires banks to perform due diligence to prevent fraud, but does not require banks to go on a porn-star witch hunt.
Why are some people saying Operation Choke Point discriminates against low-income Americans? As part of the program, the feds are scrutinizing payday lenders, which offer short-term loans at high interest rates.Critics of these lenders say they take advantage of low-income Americans, while defenders note that they're often the only option for Americans unable to get loans elsewhere. Some states restrict or ban payday loans. But as payday lenders move online, they've been able to skirt state rules, according to the Justice Department. The feds hope to crack down on payday lenders that are not complying with state and federal regulations. "This effort is focusing on ensuring that lenders are not using electronic payment networks to commit fraud or offer products that would not otherwise be permitted," says Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America, a national association of nonprofit consumer advocacy groups.
Who opposes the program? Banks, payday lenders, gun owners, conservatives, and some Democrats have expressed opposition to the program. Frank Keating, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last month accusing the Justice Department of "forcing banks to make judgments about criminal behavior and then holding them accountable for the possible wrongdoing of others." Jason Oxman, chief executive of the Electronic Transaction Association, which recently released guidelines for payment processors, told the Washington Postthat Operation Choke Point shouldn't target entire industries, and should instead focus on specific bad actors. A new lobbying group, the Third Party Payment Processors Association, opposes Operation Choke Point, and an activist group called "StopTheChoke.com" is running an online campaign against the program. The NRA, after receiving concerns from gun owners that the DOJ is using the program to take away their guns, said last week that "it will continue to monitor developments concerning Operation Choke Point."
On January 8, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sent a letter to the Justice Department arguing that "the extraordinary breadth of the Department's dragnet prompts concerns that the true goal of Operation Choke Point is not to cut off actual fraudsters' access to the financial system, but rather to eliminate legal financial services to which the Department objects."
Who supports it? Quite a few Democrats support the program. On February 26, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to the Justice Department recommending that the program continue. The letter, cosigned by 11 other Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said: "The Department plays a critical role in ensuring system-wide compliance with anti-fraud, anti-money-laundering, and related laws, especially as they apply to the unique risks associated with our payments system, and we urge the Department to continue its vigorous oversight."
Diane Standaert, senior legislative counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, notes that eradicating fraud is also a win for consumers. "Banks should have a vested interest in making sure their own customers accounts aren't being abused or unnecessarily drained," she says. "By complying with this existing guidance, it's a win-win."
Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) subpoenaed Secretary of State John Kerry to testify about Benghazi, and House Speaker John Boehner created a select committee to mount yet another investigation of the 2012 attack on the US facility in Libya. It's the latest effort by House Republicans to squeeze a scandal out of the tragedy. While the GOP's relentless Benghazi crusade continues, there has been an outpouring of rhetorical excesses, with some conservatives going as far as likening the Obama administration's response to the attack to the Nixon administration's Watergate scandal.
Appearing Sunday on CNN, Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who joined with Bob Woodward to break the Watergate story, said there's no comparison: "This is not Watergate, or anything resembling Watergate. Watergate was a massive criminal conspiracy led by a criminal president of the United States for almost the whole of his administration. We're talking total apples and oranges here." He added, "This is about an ideological scorched-earth politics that prevails in Washington."
Frank Rich at New York magazine wrote last year that Republicans are pushing the Watergate analogy because they believe Benghazi could be a "gateway both to the president's impeachment and to a GOP victory over Hillary in 2016." But they're running into a problem, Rich noted, namely that "no one to the left of Sean Hannity seriously believes that the Obama White House was trying to cover up a terrorist attack." The Huffington Post observes that Benghazi is hardly the first Obama administration affair that has driven Republicans to reference Watergate. They've wielded this analogy to decry Fast and Furious, the Solyndra controversy, the so-called IRS scandal, and the Department of Homeland Security's handling of Freedom of Information Act requests. And Republicans have dredged up the Watergate metaphor repeatedly since 2012.
Here are 13 conservatives who have compared Benghazi to Watergate, in chronological order:
1. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.): "I think this is an issue—Benghazi-gate is the right term for this. This is very, very serious, probably more serious than Watergate." —Fox News, October 1, 2012
2. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.):
No one died at watergate! The Obama lies about Benghazi and Biden's deliberate lies Thursday night should be a bigger scandal than Nixon
3. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh: "What we're watching here today is the equivalent of Woodward and Bernstein helping Nixon cover up Watergate. The mainstream media is Woodward and Bernstein. Watergate is Benghazi." The Rush Limbaugh Show, October 24, 2012
4. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): "You know what, somebody the other day said to me that this is as bad as Watergate. Well, nobody died in Watergate. But this is either a massive cover-up or an incompetence that is not acceptable service to the American people." —CBS's Face the Nation, October 28, 2012
5. Fox News contributor Bill O'Reilly: "Richard Nixon denied he had anything to do with a low-level political break-in. If the press had not been aggressive, Nixon would have gotten away with it. And certainly the break-in at the Watergate Hotel was not nearly as important as failing to define a terrorist attack that killed four Americans. President Obama…should have given us the facts weeks ago. He chose not to." —Fox News, November 15, 2012
6. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa): "I believe that it's a lot bigger than Watergate, and if you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you're going to get in the zone where Benghazi is." —The Washington Times, December 12, 2012
7. Former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee: "This is not minor. It wasn't minor when Richard Nixon lied to the American people and worked with those in his administration to cover up what really happened in Watergate. But, I remind you—as bad as Watergate was, because it broke the trust between the president and the people, no one died. This is more serious because four Americans did in fact die." —The Mike Huckabee Show, May 6, 2013
8. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): "I want to keep pushing because the bond that has been broken between those who serve us in harm's way and the government they serve is huge—and to me every bit as damaging as Watergate." —The Mike HuckabeeShow, May 6, 2013
9. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas):
You could call #Benghazi Obama's Watergate, except no one died.
10. Former Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan: "The break in at Watergate was a stupid burglary, political burglary, nobody got killed. This is a horrible atrocity. Killing an American ambassador; killing another diplomat; two Navy SEALs; destroying and burning that compound. Driving us out of a part of a country we have liberated. But you are right, the real thing here is the cover-up." —Fox News, May 9, 2013
11. Rep. Louie Gohmert, (R-Texas): "This administration is engaged in a Watergate-style cover-up, and once we get to the bottom, people in this administration need to know once they've been part of doing this kind of cover-up, they just need to know that people went to prison for participating in the cover-up." —WND Radio, August 3, 2013
12. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.): "I will say this to my dying day, I know people don’t realize it now, but that's going to go down in history as the greatest cover-up. And I'm talking about compared to the Pentagon Papers, Iran-Contra, Watergate, and the rest of them. This was a cover-up in order for people right before the election to think that there was no longer a problem with terrorism in the Middle East." —KFAQ, February 3, 2014
13. Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer: "[The email is] to me the equivalent of what was discovered with the Nixon tapes." —Fox News, May 1, 2014
Libyans are seen during fighting outside the office of the Libya Shield pro-government militia in Benghazi, Libya in June 2013.
The Obama administration is considering lifting the decades-old ban barring Libyans from coming to the United States to train as pilots and nuclear scientists. But House Republicans are voicing fierce opposition to the proposal, citing one particular reason: Benghazi.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began the process to rescind the ban last year, following requests from the Defense Department and the Department of State. Rebuilding Libya's military and police forces is critical to promoting democracy and combating extremism in the country, some security experts say, and the ban makes it harder for the US government to aid Libya's military.
But House Republicans don't see it that way. At a hearing earlier this month, they equated lifting the ban to aiding terrorists in the region, repeatedly citing the 2012 attack against the US consulate in Benghazi. "Given the desire of radical regimes and terrorists to obtain or build nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, do we want to possibly train Libyan terrorists in nuclear engineering?...It does not appear that national security has been adequately considered in the effort to end the prohibition," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) noted that "a teacher named Ronnie Smith was murdered in Benghazi. There've been no arrests. I've heard nothing about it." When Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) took the floor, he asked nine consecutive questions related to security in Benghazi.
The hearing came in the wake of a letter Goodlatte, Gowdy, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent to DHS on March 19, calling the proposal "dangerous and irresponsible." In that letter, House Republicans criticized DHS for continuing to move forward with the proposal without taking their concerns into account.
"The United States supports the aspirations of the Libyan people as they participate in their democratic transition after 42 years of dictatorship," a DHS official tells Mother Jones. "As part of this effort, we are reviewing US policies that have been in place since before the Libyan revolution to see how they might be updated to better align with US interests." The official noted that the review is not yet final.
The Reagan Administration implemented the ban in 1983 following a series of terrorist attacks involving Libyan nationals in the late 1970s. The ban, which applies to Libyans who wish to come to the United States for aviation and nuclear training, harkens back to a time when dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s nuclear program was still active. In the years following, Libya dismantled its nuclear program, the US lifted its ban on Americans traveling to Libya, and in 2011, Qaddafi met a bloody end following political uprising. The US has now committed to training and equipping the new Libyan national army, with training taking place in Bulgaria, but proposals to train pilots in the US and update the country's fleet have been stalled by the visa restrictions.
Security experts say that updating Libya's military is critical to promoting stability in the country. (Earlier this month, the interim prime minister stepped down after there was an armed attack on him and his family.) Frederic Wehrey, a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force Reserve who served as a military attache in Libya in 2009 and 2011, tells Mother Jones that while the US should proceed carefully in vetting and training Libyan forces, "the notion that they're going to come here surreptitiously and use the pilot program to wage attacks is vastly exaggerated." He adds, "It's quite surprising that the opposition [to lifting the ban] hinges on this notion that Libya is a country of all extremists, whereas the military that the US is engaging with is one of the more pro-US, pro-Western elements in the country."
Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for International Affairs Alan Bersin emphasized at the hearing that there are "extra layers of security and vetting" for people who come to the US to work in flight maintenance and nuclear-related fields. He also noted that helping Libyan nuclear scientists get employment that is not hostile to the United States is "in our interest."
Lawmakers who support lifting the ban say that House Republicans are fixating on Benghazi, without taking into account the complex security concerns in the rest of the country. "When my colleagues on the other side of the aisle nevertheless raise the Benghazi attack as well as other terrorist incidents within Libya as grounds for keeping the visa restriction in place, we must keep in mind that there is a difference between the extremist forces behind these incidents and the pro-Western Libyan military that's trying to defeat them, and that's the point of lifting the visa restriction," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said at the hearing.
"The potential lifting of this Qaddafi-era ban would increase our ability to provide security support to the Libyan government and support its border control and counterterrorism efforts—exactly the work we need to do more of post-Benghazi," an Obama administration official says. "Using what happened in Benghazi to prevent an action that would increase our national security is short sighted and unfortunate."
On Tuesday, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued explicit guidance barring schools that receive federal Title IX funds from discriminating against transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
"Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation. Similarly, the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations," the guidance reads.
Human rights advocates are praising the new policy: "We hear from hundreds of students each year who simply want to be themselves and learn at school,” Masen Davis, Executive Director of Transgender Law Center, said in a statement. "Sadly, many schools continue to exclude transgender students from being able to fully participate. Now, every school in the nation should know they are required to give all students, including transgender students, a fair chance at success."
"This guidance is crystal clear and leaves no room for uncertainty on the part of schools regarding their legal obligation to protect transgender students from discrimination," said Ian Thompson, ACLU legislative representative, in a statement. The ACLU notes that the guidance builds upon the 2012 ruling from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protecting transgender employees from workplace discrimination.
The Title IX program is a Nixon-era law that bans schools that receive federal funding from engaging in sex discrimination. But the requirement hasn't always extended to transgender students. The Transgender Law Center is currently representing a transgender man who filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the University of Pittsburgh violated his rights under Title IX, among other laws. While he was a student, the university allegedly banned him from using the men's restrooms and later expelled him after he continued using the men's facilities.
Last month, Medrobotics, a corporation associated with Carnegie Mellon University, announced that it will start marketing robotic snakes to surgeons in Europe. These "snakes," when fed down a patient's throat, can help doctors access hard-to-reach locations within the human body during head and neck surgery, leading to faster recovery times.
But this is hardly the only use for robotic snakes, which swim, slither, crawl, and climb much like the real thing. For the past few years, researchers at labs around the world have been coming up with innovative new ways to put these cool (and terrifying!) robots to use. Here's what you need to know:
Who made the first robotic snakes?
Howie Choset, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon, is widely credited with fathering the robotic snake. He cofounded the company that's making the surgical robot snake, and he told the Huffington Post last year that, in fact, he's "afraid of snakes," but he notes that his snake robots are "nice and friendly."
How do robotic snakes move?
According to the Biorobotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon, there are at least 10 main "gaits" robotic snakes perform, including sidewinding, corkscrewing, rolling, swimming, pole climbing, and cornering. The researchers say that they have been able to mimic all "biological gaits" found in snakes, and in some cases, develop those that "go beyond biological capability." Researchers also develop gaits for specific tasks, such as "stairclimbing, gap crossing, reaching into a hole in a wall [and] railroad track crossing." Here is a video of a robotic snake moving up a pole:
Wait, robotic snakes swim?! How?
Robotic snakes are buoyant, so as long as they're covered in waterproof skin, they can skim the top of the water, utilizing wireless control. Other designs can swim entirely underwater—up to 200 feet deep—which is cool if you care about things like getting rid of water pollution, and totally terrifying if you like to go swimming. Here's an example of an underwater robot snake, designed by the Tokyo-based HiBot.
What can robotic snakes be used for?
Robotic snakes have lots of cool uses. For example:
1. Search and rescue
Search and rescue dogs are vital to sniffing out survivors after an urban disaster, like a building collapse or earthquake. But there are places rescue dogs can't reach. That's where the search-and-rescue snake robot—developed by Carnegie Mellon's Biorobotics Lab and Ryerson University's Network-Centric Applied Research Team—comes in. The researchers came up with a method called "Canine Assisted Robot Deployment," whereby once a dog nears a victim, its bark triggers the snake robot to leap from its pack and start wiggling around, providing live video feed for rescuers.
2. Removing pollution from oceans and lakes
Designers at the Fortune Institute of Technology in Taiwan have proposed a way to use robotic snakes to rid bodies of water of harmful metals. The snakes are packed with bacteria that makes these toxins disintegrate. As the snakes "swallow" water, the bacteria break down the pollutants, ultimately draining out clean water. The bacteria also generate electricity that keep the snakes swimming. The idea is still in the early stages of development, but researchers say these robotic snakes could be used to clean up lakes, rivers, and oceans as early as 2020. Whether they will be still sadly swimming the oceans, long after humanity's demise, remains to be seen.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) first developed a robotic snake back in 2009. The robot could be used to survey buildings, sewage systems, and other structures during urban and subterranean warfare, Defense Update reported. According to the news outlet, IDF aimed to use robot snakes to to deposit sensors in buildings to monitor activity and deploy explosives. The US Army has also worked on developing robotic snakes to investigate improvised explosive devices.
4. Inspecting nuclear power plants
Last year, Carnegie Mellon tested one of its robotic snakes at Austria's Zwentendorf nuclear power plant, which is inactive. Researchers hope that robots will be able to investigate the radioactive parts of nuclear plants and storage areas that might be unsafe for humans. According to the lab, their robotic snakes will be able to inspect and capture high-quality footage of "dry storage casks, waste storage tanks [and] piping within nuclear power plants." Hitachi Ltd. and Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy Ltd. also developed snake robots this year to probe one of the Fukushima nuclear plants.
5. Heart surgery
6. Exploring Mars
Researchers in Norway are developing a robotic snake to slither around the surface of Mars and work with a rover to collect samples. Researchers Pål Liljebäck and Aksel Transeth told Discovery News last year that while "the Spirit rover was lost after it became stuck in the sand on Mars," robotic snakes would be able to avoid these kinds of pitfalls. Carnegie Mellon's Choset told ABC News, "The snake robot could travel to cliffs and look underneath overhangs…It could find a crevasse, crawl down it, and extract a sample, which itself could tell us how Mars evolved as a planet."