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. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
At the time, Lieutenant Josh Rushing didn't give much thought to the filmmakers who followed him around the Pentagon's Central Command press operation in Doha, Qatar, for a few weeks at the outset of the Iraq War. But then, back in the States a year later, the Marine public-affairs officer got an anonymous voice mail. "I just saw your movie at Sundance," the caller said. "I just wanted to say thanks."
"I Googled my name and Sundance," Rushing recalls, "and up came all these stories" on Control Room, a documentary about theArabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera. He was startled to notice that "a lot of them weren't just about the movie—they were about me." The film had captured the earnest 30-year-old, with striking blue eyes and the signature high-and-tight haircut favored by his fellow Marines, as he grappled with his feelings about the war and the gulf between how the Western and Arab media were portraying it. Though Rushing, now 34, never strayed from his official talking points, he remembers being troubled that American reporters "were buying into the government's message without challenging it." Some journalists would ask him prior to on-air interviews if there were "any messages you want to get across today."
You may have gotten a call from Gabriel Joseph III already. It starts with one of those cheery robo-voices asking if you'll participate in a 45-second survey. If you don't slam the phone down at that point, you'll soon get to a question like this one: "In America when a person dies, the IRS can take up to 55 percent of the inheritance left for family and friends. Do you want Congress to permanently eliminate this unfair tax?" Next, you'll be told that the Democrat running for Congress in your district "voted to keep the death tax in place and refused to vote to make permanent the tax cuts that have caused record economic growth in 2001." At that point, you'll know that you're dealing with a "push poll"—one of the dirtier, yet mostly legal, tricks in a political operative's bag of last-minute campaign tools.
Push pollsters operate behind the scenes: They don't advertise their services, don't go on TV, and often can't be tracked as they hide behind dozens of aliases. The push polling firm that placed calls to voters in the South Carolina GOP primary in 2000, suggesting that John McCain had an out-of-wedlock child who was black, was never identified, though the calls may well have cost McCain that election.
It was all the more remarkable, then, when Gabriel Joseph outed himself and his firm in a legal battle in Indiana recently. Joseph's company had been doing "surveys" for the Economic Freedom Fund, a group bankrolled by Bob Perry of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth fame. When the fund was sued by the Indiana Attorney General's Office for violating a state anti-robo-calling statute, Joseph countersued; a judge ruled against him October 25.
For Curt Weldon, pushing conspiracy theories is something of a hobby. In the past, he's claimed that a secret intelligence program called Able Danger identified Mohamed Atta, among other 9/11 conspirators, over a year before the attacks. And his book, Countdown to Terror, is filled with all sorts of dubious allegations about Iran's ties to terrorism. (This information, it turns out, was funneled to him by a middleman for Manucher Ghorbanifar, an alleged intelligence fabricator and Iran-Contra figure.) Now, after the feds raided the homes of his lobbyist daughter and her business partner yesterday, investigating whether the Pennsylvania congressman used his position to steer business to their firm, Weldon is alerting the world to a new conspiracy. In a statement released yesterday, he questioned the timing of the investigation, which comes just three weeks before the election, suggesting that the probe is politically motivated. As is increasingly becoming the case when members of the GOP get caught up in scandals (see Hastert, Dennis), Weldon blamed the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington for the supposed smear. "It is no coincidence that the vice president of CREW, Philadelphia trial lawyer Daniel Berger, and his law firm are among the single largest contributors to my opponent Joe Sestak's campaign," Weldon said. "This is a group that is closely tied to my opponent Joe Sestak and now, just weeks before my re-election word that the inquiry is occurring has mysteriously trickled out. That is dirty, partisan politics at its absolute worst."
Of course, politics is a dirty business and damaging allegations that arise in advance of an election should always be subject to the highest level of skepticism. But, in this case, there are a couple of major things wrong with Weldon's hypothesis. First, the allegations against Weldon have been circulating for some time. In fact, CREW's deputy director, Naomi Seligman Steiner, told me last night that her organization requested that the Justice Department investigate Weldon a full two-and-a-half years ago. Further, for Weldon's assertions to hold any water, one would also have to believe that the FBI is taking its direction from CREW. A conspiracy theory of that magnitude sounds like it might make an apt topic for Weldon's next book.
If the Republicans manage to keep control of the Senate and that's a big if Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who currently serves as Majority Whip, is poised to ascend to Majority Leader, as Bill Frist retires at the end of his term. In anticipation of this possibility, the Lexington Herald-Leader, has been investigating the Senator for the past six months and published its findings in a lengthy article yesterday. What did the Herald-Leader discover? A "nexus between his actions and his donors' agendas. He pushes the government to help cigarette makers, Las Vegas casinos, the pharmaceutical industry, credit card lenders, coal mine owners and others."
McConnell is one of the GOP's more prolific fundraisers and has personally raised close to $220 million for his party over the course of his career. Marshall Whitman, a onetime aide to John McCain, told the paper: "He's completely dogged in his pursuit of money. That's his great love, above everything else." Former Senator Alan Simpson said that "when he asked for money, his eyes would shine like diamonds. He obviously loved it." Apparently McConnell was so intent on building up the GOP's warchest that he sold memberships to something called the "Senate Republican Inner Circle." A donation of $15,000 bought wealthy individuals a lifetime membership (members could also pay $2,000 a year), which carried with it access to "the men who are shaping the Senate agenda."
"Americans are big on rewards these days. Financial rewards in the stock market -- cash rewards on your credit cards -- luxurious rewards in the travel industry," McConnell wrote in one invitation. "But a special group of Americans is experiencing one of the greatest reward programs ever, because they took the initiative to become a Life Member of the Inner Circle."
Those rewards are greatly anticipated by corporate leaders who want a say in Senate decisions. After the Inner Circle welcomed Geoffrey Bible, chief executive at Philip Morris, he sent a copy of the announcement to his aides.
"So now I'm in," Bible wrote in the margin. "See if we can make the most of it."
When the paper questioned McConnell on his "inner circle," the senator downplayed its significance, telling the Herald-Leader that "they want their picture taken with you; that's all it amounts to." Hmmm. It's just a hunch, but something tells me that Bible and other members of McConnell's quid pro quo club were paying for more than just photo-ops.
California talk radio host Melanie Morgan and her conservative nonprofit Move America Forward were hard at work this weekend raising money for the organization's latest smear campaign, which, of all likely targets, will take aim at Bill Clinton. The ad blitz, according to one of several mass emails that went out to MAF supporters over the weekend, will "rebuke" Clinton for his "recent efforts to undermine support for the war on terrorism -- on national television." (Emphasis theirs.)
MAF, it seems, was moved to action after Clinton's recent appearance on Fox News Sunday (ostensibly to discuss the Clinton Global Initiative), during which he was asked by Chris Wallace whether his administration did enough to rid the world of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. "At least I tried," a visibly heated Clinton responded. "That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try." Clinton went on to criticize the current administration for disregarding the counterterrorism strategy he left for his successor and for marginalizing counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke.
Move America Forward, which has previously branded Nancy Pelosi a "domestic enemy" and has launched a "U.N. Out of U.S." ad campaign, is expected to debut its latest attack ad tomorrow on CNN and CNN Headline News. The ad (view it here) opens in typical fashion a tight shot of Osama bin Laden that leads to a 9/11 montage, rendered in black-and-white for dramatic effect. Meanwhile, a narrator intones: "Terrorists want to kill us. They've attacked over and over again. Our president didn't have his eye on the ball. He didn't make the war on terrorism his top priority. But enough about Bill Clinton."
While attack ads are clearly not the province of one political party or the other, questions have been raised about whether Move America Forward, which describes itself as a "non-partisan, not-for-profit," is pushing the envelope on its nonprofit status with its clearly partisan agenda. The Contra Costa Timesexplored this question in early September:
The IRS prohibits groups eligible for tax-deductible donations from engaging in partisan activity. While such groups can speak out on policy matters and perform a small amount of lobbying, they cannot urge support for a particular candidate or party, said Bill Steiner, a Sacramento-based IRS spokesman .
A nonprofit group does not have to explicitly express support for a particular candidate or party to be in violation, Steiner said. For instance, the IRS launched a probe of the liberal All Saints Church in Pasadena after an anti-war homily delivered by rector George Regas just before the 2004 election.