Daniel Schulman

Senior Editor

Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He is the author of the new Koch brothers biography, Sons of Wichita (Grand Central Publishing). Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.

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Misleading Anti-Reform Calls Target Nebraskans

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 11:29 AM EDT

The Federal Trade Commission's new rules banning certain types of robocalls may have gone into effect today, but these regs won't stop deceptive political calls like the ones blanketing Nebraska presently. The calls—the work of Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing group that has played a key role in organizing tea party and town hall protests—urge Nebraskans to pressure Senator Ben Nelson, who's come under fire by liberal groups for his far-from-enthusiastic position on the public option, to "kill" health care reform.

Greg Sargent reports:

The calls inform recipients that reform would "put Washington in charge of all health care," a misleading reference to the possible inclusion of a public option, and would "cut Medicare by $500 billion," a claim that’s also been widely denounced as misleading...

"Senator Ben Nelson is playing an important role in this debate," the call says, according to a script provided to me by AFP after I was tipped off to the call. "Would you be willing to call Senator Ben Nelson and tell him to vote for the Filibuster and kill the health care bill?"

If the caller responds affirmatively, the operator recites a number for one of Nelson’s district offices. "Please tell Senator Ben Nelson to vote for the Filibuster and kill the health care bill," the call continues. "Can I confirm that you will make this call within the hour?"

Nelson has refused to rule out joining GOP filibusters on major legislation, though he’s also suggested he probably won’t filibuster on health care. The call is a sign that anti-reform forces still view Nelson, who has refused to back a public option, as a potential ally with Republicans in the quest to "kill" reform.

 

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Is Blackwater Too Big to Fail?

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 11:14 AM EDT

Erik Prince's security enterprise has a division for pretty much everything. Need planes or choppers? See Aviation Worldwide or Presidential Airways. A compliment of Colombian mercs? Greystone at your service. For-hire spooks? Total Intelligence Solutions—emphasis on total—is standing by. And for the super-double-secret covert work—the kind that the CIA keeps even Congress in the dark about—Prince has a division for that too. According to the New York Times, it's called Blackwater Select.

Building on its scoop that the company played a role in the CIA's abandoned program to assassinate Al Qaeda operatives, the Times reports today that this secret division also plays a part in the agency's predator drone program.

The division’s operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.

The role of the company in the Predator program highlights the degree to which the C.I.A. now depends on outside contractors to perform some of the agency’s most important assignments. And it illustrates the resilience of Blackwater, now known as Xe (pronounced Zee) Services, though most people in and outside the company still refer to it as Blackwater. It has grown through government work, even as it attracted criticism and allegations of brutality in Iraq.

Blackwater's Black Op

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:53 AM EDT

Is that what those silencers were for? The big news today is that the CIA outsourced a program to assassinate Al Qaeda operatives—the program Leon Panetta was in such a hurry to brief the congressional intel committees on—to Blackwater. The program was never fully operational, but when it was brought to the attention of Panetta in June, CIA officials were proposing to take this operation to the next level and begin training assassination teams, the Washington Post reported in July. Panetta promptly shut the program down. According the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti, who broke the story of Blackwater's involvement, the private security company's role in the program "was a major reason" that Panetta "became alarmed" and proceeded directly to the Hill to come clean.

At this point, Blackwater's precise role in the abandoned assassination program is a bit hazy—and it's likely to remain that way since the operation never actually got off the ground. Mazzetti reports that the company "helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance" and says "it is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives." The Post, which advanced the story a bit further today, reports that Blackwater was in fact "given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry."

The enormous oversight and accountability implications of outsourcing this type of covert op to the private sector are evident, so why would CIA officials even entertain this notion in the first place? The answer is buried in the Post story: apparently it had everything to do with Blackwater's revolving door relationship with the CIA (among other government agencies).

The program was initially managed by the CIA's counterterrorism center, but its functions were partly transferred to Blackwater when key officials from the center retired from the CIA and went to work for the private contractor.

Novak, Corn, and Plamegate

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 11:33 AM EDT

At the time, Robert Novak couldn't have know that, despite a half century of covering Washington, one little line would ignite the scandal that would come to dominate his legacy: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." Following the conservative columnist's death yesterday at the age of 78, mentions of his role in outing the CIA operative were ubiquitous in the numerous obits commemorating his life.

Our DC bureau chief, David Corn, played a unique role in the Plamegate saga, too. Then working for the Nation, he was the first to raise the possibility that Bush administration officials, bent on smearing diplomat Joseph Wilson, had broken the law by leaking the identity of Wilson's wife. Let's just say that David's role in breaking this news did not endear to him Novak, with whom he'd enjoyed a friendly enough relationship over the years. Over at Politics Daily, David recalls his interactions with Novak pre- and-post Plamegate:

I learned of the death of Bob Novak from an e-mail sent to me by an NPR reporter looking for a comment. And I felt awkward, for my last public exchange with the conservative columnist and TV pundit who relished his "Prince of Darkness" nickname had been an ugly one. There is, of course, the don't-speak-ill-of-the-dead rule. But what could I say about a fellow who had blasted me on national television as an ideological hack?

There wasn't always bad blood between us. Years earlier, as a substitute host on CNN's "Crossfire," I had come to enjoy wrestling with Novak. When I began that gig, though, he barely paid any attention to me before or after tapings, adopting an attitude that seemed to say, "Show me your stuff, kid." He acted as if I were an irritant, not a sparring partner who deserved to be in the ring with him. But I didn't expect much from Novak. For years, I had thought he used his column and cable appearances to do favors for conservative allies and to sully (sometimes unfairly) liberals. Eventually, he warmed up -- well, as much as he could -- and started pumping me for information on what Democrats and liberals in Washington were thinking. I hardly held any top-secret information in that regard, but we did what most political reporters in D.C. do when forced to spend time together: trade tidbits, gossip and half-stories. And in his 2000 book, "Completing the Revolution" (as in: the "conservative revolution"), he described me as a "bright, young, left-wing journalist." (Given his age, I suppose someone in his early 40s was "young.")

Bonner's Latest Astroturf Admission (Plus More Fake Letters)

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 6:21 PM EDT

Rep. Ed Markey's Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has released a new batch of bogus letters sent to members of Congress by Bonner & Associates, including one the DC-based PR and lobbying firm previously told the committee was genuine but admitted on Monday was also a fake. The letters claim to be from representatives of local senior citizens groups concerned that climate change legislation will drive up energy costs for the elderly in an already "volatile economy."  

Founded in 1984 by Jack Bonner, a former GOP Senate aide and Republican National Committee staffer, the company specializes in Astroturf campaigns—efforts to create the illusion of grassroots support around the positions of its corporate clients. The firm accomplishes this by, among other things, convincing citizens, nonprofits, and others to sign letters to lawmakers in support or opposition to various issues.

Bonner's astroturfing techniques are dodgy in their own right, but the company took them to an even shadier level as the climate change bill authored by Markey and Henry Waxman neared a vote in the House. Bonner's role in crafting the phony letters first emerged in July,   after the legislation had already passed, when a local paper reported that the firm had sent forged letters to Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello purporting to be from minority groups opposed to the climate change bill. It was later revealed that Bonner, working on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, had targeted two other congressional Democrats, Kathy Dahlkemper and Christopher Carney, with this deceptive campaign. Both of the lawmakers, who represent districts in Pennsylvania, ultimately voted against the Waxman-Markey bill.

Jack Bonner has claimed that the letters were the work of a rogue "temporary employee" whom the firm fired when his or her actions came to light. ACCCE, meanwhile, has expressed "outrage" over the letters, even raising the possibility of taking legal action against Bonner.
 

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