Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
This morning, on C-SPAN, the foundation of the national security state exploded.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, took to the Senate floor and accused the CIA of spying on committee investigators tasked with probing the agency's past use of harsh interrogation techniques (a.k.a. torture) and detention. Feinstein was responding to recent media stories reporting that the CIA had accessed computers used by intelligence committee staffers working on the committee's investigation. The computers were set up by the CIA in a locked room in a secure facility separate from its headquarters, and CIA documents relevant to the inquiry were placed on these computers for the Senate investigators. But, it turns out, the Senate sleuths had also uncovered an internal CIA memo reviewing the interrogation program that had not been turned over by the agency. This document was far more critical of the interrogation program than the CIA's official rebuttal to a still-classified, 6,300-page Senate intelligence committee report that slams it, and the CIA wanted to find out how the Senate investigators had gotten their mitts on this damaging memo.
The CIA's infiltration of the Senate's torture probe was a possible constitutional violation and perhaps a criminal one, too. The agency's inspector general and the Justice Department have begun inquiries. And as the story recently broke, CIA sources—no names, please—told reporters that the real issue was whether the Senate investigators had hacked the CIA to obtain the internal review. Readers of the few newspaper stories on all this did not have to peer too far between the lines to discern a classic Washington battle was under way between Langley and Capitol Hill.
Newly released documents from Bill Clinton's library show how Hillary Clinton was tasked to coax and flatter lawmakers during the 1993 heath care reform debate. It was very "House of Cards"-ish (but without the murders).
The Bill Clinton presidential library on Friday released thousands of pages of documents from the Clinton presidency, including a batch of nearly 300 pages related to the health care reform effort led by Hillary Clinton. This series of memos from 1993 offers a fascinating inside-baseball account of the White House's legislative strategy for passing health insurance reform. Anyone who has watched House of Cards would recognize the techniques (though there are no murders) presented in these memos: composing files on the past and current health care positions of every member of the House and Senate, setting up a health care "university" to educate lawmakers on key policy components, mounting a "massive public communications campaign," and coaxing—that is, ego-stroking—of individual lawmakers.
Much of this coaxing was to be done by the first lady. One memo noted that Rep. John Dingell, the powerful chair of the energy and commerce committee, was pessimistic about enacting comprehensive reform. "The best way to get Chairman Dingell back on board…is to make him feel that we need him (as we do)," an aide advised Hillary Clinton. Rep. Jack Brooks, who headed the House judiciary committee, was interested in limiting the antitrust exemption for the insurance industry. ("What he wants to hear is that you are aware of his legislation and that you and the President would like nothing less than to undercut his efforts in any way.") New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had recently taken over the Senate finance committee, also was "nervous," believing that "health care reform will be complex, controversial, and potentially expensive." So Hillary was advised to focus on Sens. George Mitchell and Jay Rockefeller, other Democrats on the committee, who "have the potential to actually (although not visually) run the Committee on this issue." One memo noted the "desire" of several moderate Republicans to work with the White House, but it reported that these members "fear about how it will be perceived by the rest of Republicans." Prior to a meeting with several GOP senators, who were expected to complain about the lack of White House outreach, Hillary Clinton was advised to quickly push "for movement to 'this is all water under a bridge' language." Another memo called for establishing a "time sensitive Mrs. Clinton thank you note system following important (does not have to be all) meetings with Members." A memo laying out the grand political strategy for the Clintons' health care reform project described an "essential" component: "Keep the health care industry divided, both in terms of whether they support or oppose us, and in terms of keeping them from ganging up on any single part of the overall package."
One intriguing memo to Hillary Clinton prepping her for a meeting with Rep. Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat who was a fierce advocate of a single-payer system. Though Clinton's reps had been telling progressive groups and unions in private meetings that she believed a single-payer health insurance program made sense, she and her aides had ruled it out for her health care initiative (due to the political opposition such a proposal would draw) and had opted for a much more complicated overhaul based on a requirement that employers provide health insurance through HMOs. Still, as this memo noted, Clinton couldn't afford to tick off the single-payer crusaders: "Cultivating a good and close relationship with the Congressman is becoming more and more important to us. Our House target list is filled with single-payer advocates, many of whom will look to him for a sign-off. Therefore, as difficult as it probably will be, we need to keep him happy and on our side." The memo reported that at a recent meeting of House Democrats, McDermott had spoken "at some length about how the single payer system was so much easier to describe than the plan he thought the Administration would be proposing" and suggested that McDermott had a rather elevated view of his own role in the ongoing health care reform debate.
This was the "suggested approach" Clinton was to take with McDermott:
As with all Members, and particularly Congressman McDermott, the goal at this meeting is to make him feel we are listening to him and desirous of his guidance. In this vein, you should consider throwing anything he throws at you as a complication right back at him with a question. Then, if you have concerns about his suggested approach, you can address it with him directly. (This way, you don't allow him the opportunity to pick apart anything before you have had a chance to hear and analyze his alternatives).
And Chris Jennings, the White House aide providing this advice, proposed a little trick for Hillary Clinton to pull:
Lastly, as staged and as presumptuous as this is, I might suggest that you consider throwing out all of the staff at the end of the meeting to hold a five minute private meeting with him. This will signal to him the closeness of your relationship with him, and the value you place on his confidential advice. (The subject could be on virtually anything.)
Frank Underwood could do no better. But making nice with single-payer advocates—and winning over many of them—was not sufficient. Not enough Democratic senators got behind the Clintons' plan—"Anyone who thinks [the Clinton health care plan] can work in the real world as presently written isn't living in it," Moynihan declared—and the initiative crashed and burned. But perhaps Hillary learned a lesson or two about working with parochially minded members of the House and Senate that she later could apply during her time as a senator—and that may come in handy should she ever again be working in the White House.
Last October, Sen. Ted Cruz's father, Rafael, was thrust into the spotlight when Mother Jonesrevealed that the septuagenarian businessman-turned-pastor had made a series of inflammatory remarks during several speaking engagements. These comments included the assertions that the United States is a "Christian nation," that President Barack Obama is an "outright Marxist" who seeks to "destroy all concept of God" and should be sent "back to Kenya," and that "social justice is a cancer." At the time, Sean Rushton, a spokesman for Sen. Cruz, a Texas Republican, said, "Pastor Cruz does not speak for the senator." But documents obtained by Mother Jones show that an aide to the senator serves as a scheduler for the elder Cruz and books his speaking gigs, including those for which Rafael Cruz might be paid.
When an activist, who has asked not to be identified, requested Rafael Cruz's presence at an event, Lela Pittenger, a Ted Cruz aide, replied and forwarded a three-page "Pastor Rafael Cruz Event Request Form." Pittenger, according to 2013 Senate records, was a regional director on Cruz's Senate staff. She made $48,666 in salary working for Ted Cruz in the first nine months of last year. Her Facebook page identifies her as the Central Texas regional director for the senator and notes she lives in Austin. (In 2012, she ran against Ted Cruz in the Republican Senate primary as a "Rand Paul Republican"; she received 1.28 percent of the vote.)
Hypocrisy is nothing new in politics. Nor is playing politics with Social Security. But the National Republican Congressional Committee, the outfit assigned the task of protecting the GOP majority in the House, pegged the needle in Social Security-fueled political hypocrisy with its recent attack on Alex Sink, the Florida Democrat running in a hotly contested and much-watched special election to fill the congressional seat once held by Republican C.W. "Bill" Young, who died in October.
A few days ago, after Sink blasted her Republican opponent, David Jolly, for being a lobbyist who has worked for clients advocating the privatization of Social Security and Medicare, the NRCC struck back. Katie Prill, a spokeswoman for the group, assailed Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer, for supporting the Simpson-Bowles long-term budget plan that was released in late 2010. This centrist blueprint called for raising $1 trillion in revenues via taxes and proposed measures that would squeeze money out of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, including a slow and gradual increase in the retirement age. Prill noted, "Alex Sink supports a plan that raises the retirement age for Social Security recipients, raises Social Security taxes and cuts Medicare, all while making it harder for Pinellas seniors to keep their doctors that they know and love. Sending Alex Sink to Washington guarantees that seniors right here in Pinellas County are in jeopardy of losing the Social Security and Medicare benefits that they have earned and deserve." (The congressional district Sink is vying to represent covers Pinellas County.)
The Simpson-Bowles plan called for raising the retirement age to 69 by 2075. So few of Pinellas County's current seniors would lose benefits. But putting aside the policy pros and cons of Simpson-Bowles, the NRCC was ignoring an inconvenient truth: for years, Republicans have slammed Democrats for not accepting the Simpson-Bowles plan on entitlement reforms. (The Rs, of course, were not keen on the Simpson-Bowles provisions for greater tax revenues.) Repeatedly, top GOPers have lambasted President Barack Obama and the Democrats for supposedly disavowing Simpson-Bowles. In an April 2011, interview, House Speaker John Boehner chided Obama for not moving forward with Simpson-Bowles: "He took exactly none of his own deficit reduction commission's ideas. Not one. Come on? It's time to grow up and get serious about the problems that face our country." A year later Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House GOP's leading budget wonk, echoed this sentiment: "The president has chosen to disavow the fiscal commission." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has urged Obama to "say yes to Simpson-Bowles."
And then there's the Republican National Committee. A year after Simpson-Bowles was released, it excoriated Obama for "pretending it never exisited [sic]." In a press release, the RNC whacked Obama for not opting for "The Bold, Comprehensive Approach To Reining In The Fast-Growing Federal Debt That His Own Fiscal Commission Has Said Is Needed, Now." It noted, "OBAMA'S DECISION TO ABANDON THE FISCAL COMMISSION HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS 'AN ABSOLUTE TRAGEDY.'" It approvingly quoted a Bloomberg News report noting that Obama "allowed 2012 election concerns to shape his timing and willingness to advocate Social Security and Medicare reductions." In other words, Obama was a wimp for not fully endorsing the tough medicine of Simpson-Bowles. (In later budget negotiations with Republicans, Obama would indeed show some willingness to raise the age for Medicare and readjust Social Security benefits—but only if the Republicans yielded on tax revenues.)
The Republican position for the past three years has clearly been accepting the entitlements-squeezing provisions of Simpson-Bowles. But now that a Democrat has spoken positively of the plan—adopting a position similar to that of Boehner, Ryan, and other Rs—the NRCC gallops to the left to attack her, demonstrating once again that there's little regard for policy and principles among political operatives. (This also shows how Democrats who make good-faith efforts to strike a grand-bargain compromise with Republicans—who have long groused that Democrats always target them with demagogic assaults on Social Security—can be hammered.)
The NRCC has already spent $1 million in ads against Sink—the focus being her support of Obamacare—and a recent poll showed that the race is tight. Voters will head to the polls on March 11, and, no doubt, there will be plenty of more attacks fielded in the next two weeks.
The NRCC's Prill did not respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE: According to the Tampa Bay Times, Alex Sink has not endorsed Simpson-Bowles in its entirety. Here's how the newspaper put it:
The Sink campaign pushed back hard on the NRCC attack, calling it a "gross misrepresentation" to say she fully endorses Simpson Bowles. Based on an audio sent to Buzz, here is what Sink actually said: "My approach is we have got to bring down the trillion dollar deficits. They are not sustainable. The question is how do we go about doing it. I think we go back and at least dust off the Simpson-Bowles. I’m sure I’m not going to agree with everything that was in it, but it was a bipartisan group of people who said 'this is one path forward.' Let’s see which aspects of that we have agreement on...."
If that's all the NRCC has on Sink, then it has nothing.
The surprising tech news of the week is Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a fast-growing mobile-messaging startup. WhatsApp allows smartphone users to evade phone company limits and send unlimited text messages. The service is free for the first year, and a buck for each following year. Five years after its creation by Jan Koum, a Ukrainian immigrant who dropped out of college, and Brian Acton, a Stanford alum, the app has 450 million users—most outside the United States—and a million new users signing up each day. The eye-popping price tag—about one-tenth the entire value of Facebook—is the shocker that's drawn much media notice. But there's another element to the story that is astounding: Koum and Acton have published a manifesto that radically critiques the foundation of modern capitalism—advertising—and denounces materialism. Facebook's business model, of course, depends upon both.
When new users of WhatsApp first download the service, they are shown a page that has a link to a message explaining why WhatsApp does not accept ads. Those who click on that link get an explanation that could have been penned by the gang at Adbusters, the anti-consumerist magazine that had a hand in starting the Occupy movement. Here's the full statement from Koum:
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.
– Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Brian and I spent a combined 20 years at Yahoo!, working hard to keep the site working. And yes, working hard to sell ads, because that's what Yahoo! did. It gathered data and it served pages and it sold ads.
We watched Yahoo! get eclipsed in size and reach by Google…a more efficient and more profitable ad seller. They knew what you were searching for, so they could gather your data more efficiently and sell better ads.
These days companies know literally everything about you, your friends, your interests, and they use it all to sell ads.
When we sat down to start our own thing together three years ago we wanted to make something that wasn't just another ad clearinghouse. We wanted to spend our time building a service people wanted to use because it worked and saved them money and made their lives better in a small way. We knew that we could charge people directly if we could do all those things. We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.
No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they'll see tomorrow. We know people go to sleep excited about who they chatted with that day (and disappointed about who they didn't). We want WhatsApp to be the product that keeps you awake…and that you reach for in the morning. No one jumps up from a nap and runs to see an advertisement.
Advertising isn't just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought. At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it's all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out…And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen.
Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.
At WhatsApp, our engineers spend all their time fixing bugs, adding new features and ironing out all the little intricacies in our task of bringing rich, affordable, reliable messaging to every phone in the world. That's our product and that's our passion. Your data isn't even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.
When people ask us why we charge for WhatsApp, we say "Have you considered the alternative?"
Advertising is the enemy; it distorts values and devalues life—this is not the sentiment that animates Facebook and Silicon Valley. Corporate messaging dominates the public sphere. Stadiums bear the names of corporate sponsors. Celebrities are expected to sell anything and everything. (Beyoncé is a Pepsi delivery vehicle, Taylor Swift, a Diet Coke system.) Websites are designed to soak up personal data to enhance the targeting of consumers. Public radio and public television air sponsor messages that serve as ads. Taxi cabs in New York City play ads in the back seats. (Yes, Mother Jones relies on ads for a chunk of its revenue.) And there's no longer much public debate about all this. Yet the WhatsApp guys see evil in turning tech users into products, not people.
Analysts and others are wondering whether WhatsApp is truly worth $19 billion. But another big question is whether the culture-jamming ethos of WhatsApp can survive as the company is melded into Facebook. Will Koum and Acton become part of the Borg they so eloquently decried? The first rule of Fight Club was "You do not talk about fight club." The second rule was "You do not talk about fight club." Now that Koum and Acton are billionaires and über-players on the tech scene, will they continue to spread their anti-consumerism, tech-is-for-the-people gospel? Will they change Facebook, or will Facebook change them?