David Corn

David Corn

Washington Bureau Chief

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.

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GOP Going Soft on Wiretapping Terrorists?

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 11:48 AM EDT

TestMicah Wright & AntiWarPosters.com.

Are Republicans getting their wires crossed when it comes to tracking the secret communications of suspected terrorists?

On Monday, the New York Times broke a story that lit up the Internets—especially those quarters inhabited by privacy advocates and social media mavens: the Obama administration, noting that criminals and terrorists are increasingly communicating online instead of over the telephone, wants to enact legislation compelling all online communication services to be open to wiretapping. This would mean ensuring that the feds could intercept encrypted or non-encrypted communications sent by BlackBerry and similar devices, through Facebook and other social networking sites, and via Skype. In other words, any Internet communications system or service would have to have a backdoor that could be exploited for government-approved monitoring.

Republican legislators are backing the administration on this. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the armed services and homeland security committees, told Mother Jones, "I'm open-minded about making sure terrorist activities are being followed," and that "if I can help" with this legislation, "I will." Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who sits on the armed services and select intelligence committees, said of Obama's plan: "I think he's dead on target...We need to give the intelligence community all the tools they need."

But privacy fans and technophiles have howled. James Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democray and Technology, noted the administration was challenging "the fundamental elements of the Internet revolution," especially its decentralized design. Technology writer Dean Takahashi pointed out, "If companies such as Skype and Facebook were forced to design holes in their networks so that FBI officials could listen into conversations, that would re-centralize the networks, raise costs, and possibly introduce vulnerabilities to the software that could be exploited by hackers." Progressive blogger Marcy Wheeler decried this "power grab." And the Republican National Committee joined the assault.

Wait, the RNC? On Tuesday morning, the GOP HQ zapped out an email blasting Obama: "Quick To Jump On Civil Liberty Concerns In The Past, Obama Administration Now Wants To Read Your Emails And Monitor Facebook." The GOP asserted that Obama had opposed the Bush-Cheney administration's warrantless wiretapping program as "unconstitutional and illegal," but now he "seeks authority to 'wiretap the Internet.'" Citing the Times article, the RNC insisted that implementation of this policy would cause "huge technology and security" headaches and leave holes that could be "exploited by hackers." Despite the fact that top Republican lawmakers are backing Obama's proposal, the press release made it seem like a truly lousy idea. Had Michael Steele and the Gang become passionate civil libertarians opposed to government snooping supposedly designed to protect the United States from terrorists?

Not quite. RNC communications director Doug Heye says the party outfit is not taking a position "one way or the other" on the proposal. He adds: "We're just letting people know what the president is doing. A lot of people who support him are seeing he's not what they thought he was…A lot of people who are supporters of the president are concerned about wiretapping and things like monitoring Facebook, and we want to make sure they have this information." Translated: we're doing what we can to foment disappointment within Obama's base.

The GOP's slam unfairly compared Obama's proposal to the warrantless wiretapping program of the previous administration (which was vociferously defended at the time by Vice President Dick Cheney, who always referred to its official name: the "Terrorist Surveillance Program"). The eavesdropping that the Obama administration is looking to enable would presumably be subject to warrants. So this proposal—good or bad—is not inconsistent with Obama's criticism that President George W. Bush "abused" his authority and "undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders."

When we pressed Heye on whether the Republican Party supports or opposes legislation that would allow federal investigators to intercept the online or BlackBerry-type communications of suspected terrorists, he refused to say: "It's not a question I was expecting today. Our job is not to make policy pronouncements. Our job is to point out where the president has fallen short on his promises. This is one example of this. Obama supporters do not like this."

Still, the RNC's press release highlighted the potential problems with the Obama administration's proposal, making it appear as if the RNC has abandoned Cheney-like vigilance (or excess) when it comes to tracking the bad guys. But perhaps there's a greater mission: to score political points against another enemy—the president of the United States.

Front page image: Flickr/hughelectronic (Creative Commons).

A Michele Bachmann/Bill Clinton Smackdown

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 9:20 AM EDT

Michele Bachman seems particularly happy—now that she's running for reelection against Bill Clinton.

The Minnesota Republican, who heads the House Tea Party Caucus, has been sending out fundraising emails to conservatives, asking them to help her "defend herself against Bill Clinton." What's Clinton got to do with it? In mid-September, he spoke at a Minneapolis fundraiser for state Sen. Tarryl Clark, who is challenging Bachmann. According to Bachmann, Clinton attacked her and the tea party movement by calling her "stupid." Hitting up the right-wingers for campaign cash, she decries "the despicable Clinton attacks on my character," and declares, "Clinton, Pelosi, Obama, and the rest of the liberal establishment are in panic mode as Tea Party candidates across the country rise up against their socialist government. We must continue to fight!"

Clinton sure did take a swipe at Bachmann at that fundraiser, but how tough was it? Journalist Joe Conason was there, and it's his account that started the fuss. Here's what the ex-president said, with Clark standing by him, according to Conason:

Your opponent is the ultimate example of putting ideology over evidence…I respect people with a conservative philosophy. This country has been well-served by having two broad traditions within which people can operate. If you have a philosophy, it means you’re generally inclined one way or the other but you’re open to evidence. If you have an ideology, it means everything is determined by dogma and you’re impervious to evidence. Evidence is irrelevant That’s how I see Rep. Bachmann. She’s very attractive in saying all these things she says, but it’s pretty stupid.

To parse Clinton's words (!), he didn't call Bachmann stupid, just the ideas she's promoting. But that was enough for her to self-righteously portray herself as a Clinton victim--and to do so in melodramatic terms. "Bill Clinton will stop at nothing to raise money to defeat me," she insists in one of the fundraising emails she sent out. And she claims that in the first five days of her anti-Clinton contributions-collecting effort, she bagged over $117,000 in online donations. "The liberal left loves Bill Clinton," Bachmann maintains. And the conservative right still loves bashing him.

******

Before Colbert, There was Twain

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 4:47 PM EDT

Long before Stephen Colbert added congressional witness to his resumé, Samuel L. Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—testified before a congressional committee. He did so in 1906 not within character, but as an author, for the topic at hand was copyright legislation. And as one of the most successful best-sellers of his day, he (and his heirs) had a direct interest in this bill. Clemens played it straight, noting his fondness for copyright and contending that ideas are property. But he could not help but be witty and amusing, and the lawmakers reportedly roared with laughter when he veered from the serious to the comic. Here are his  remarks. By the way, congressional testimony is not covered by copyright laws.

I have read this bill. At least I have read such portions as I could understand. Nobody but a practised legislator can read the bill and thoroughly understand it, and I am not a practised legislator.

I am interested particularly and especially in the part of the bill which concerns my trade. I like that extension of copyright life to the author's life and fifty years afterward. I think that would satisfy any reasonable author, because it would take care of his children. Let the grand-children take care of themselves. That would take care of my daughters, and after that I am not particular. I shall then have long been out of this struggle, independent of it, indifferent to it.

It isn't objectionable to me that all the trades and professions in the United States are protected by the bill. I like that. They are all important and worthy, and if we can take care of them under the Copyright law I should like to see it done. I should like to see oyster culture added, and anything else.

I am aware that copyright must have a limit, because that is required by the Constitution of the United States, which sets aside the earlier Constitution, which we call the decalogue. The decalogue says you shall not take away from any man his profit. I don't like to be obliged to use the harsh term. What the decalogue really says is, "Thou shalt not steal," but I am trying to use more polite language.

The laws of England and America do take it away, do select but one class, the people who create the literature of the land. They always talk handsomely about the literature of the land, always what a fine, great, monumental thing a great literature is, and in the midst of their enthusiasm they turn around and do what they can to discourage it.

I know we must have a limit, but forty-two years is too much of a limit. I am quite unable to guess why there should be a limit at all to the possession of the product of a man's labor. There is no limit to real estate.

Doctor Hale has suggested that a man might just as well, after discovering a coal-mine and working it forty-two years, have the Government step in and take it away.

The GOP "Pledge": What's Not In It

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 12:06 PM EDT

The House Republicans on Thursday released a manifesto outlining what they intend to do should they triumph in the coming congressional elections. The glossy document, which is adorned with photographs of the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, and cowboys, is high-mindedly titled "A Pledge to America: A New Governing Agenda Built on the Priorities of Our Nation, the Principles We Stand For & America's Founding Values." And it offers few surprises: tax cuts for all (including the super-rich), slashing federal spending (without specifying actual targets), downsizing government, more money for the military (especially missile defense), and repealing the health care bill. It decries deficits—though it advocates proposals that will add trillions of dollars to the deficit. It calls for reforming Congress—but in non-significant ways (such as forcing legislators to place a sentence in every bill attesting that the legislation is connected to a principle in the Constitution). It's full of Hallmark-style patriotism: "America is more than a country." It's infused with tea party anger: Washington has plotted "to thwart the will of the people and overturn their votes and their values." It is likely to have little impact on the elections.

You can read it yourself. Or peruse the reviews: liberal Ezra Klein dissects its internal contradictions; tea partier Erick Erickson decries the "Pledge" as a sell-out of the tea party movement; Republican curmudgeon David Frum finds it retro and short on "modern" and "affirmative" ideas for governing during a recessionary year. But here's a short-cut for you. Below is a list of words and phrases and the number of times they are each mentioned in the 45-page "Pledge."

Wall Street: 0
Bank: 0
Finance: 0
Mortgage crisis: 0
Derivative: 0
Subprime: 0
Lobbying: 0
Lobbyist: 0
K Street: 0
Campaign finance: 0
Campaign contribution: 0
Campaign donation: 0
Disclosure: 0
Climate change: 0
Environment: 1 ("political environment")
Alternative energy: 0
Renewable: 0
Green: 0
Transportation: 0
Infrastructure: 0
Poverty: 0
Food: 0
Food safety: 0
Housing: 0
Internet: 0
Education: 0
College: 0
Reading: 0
Science: 0
Research: 0
Technology: 0
Bush administration: 0

That list is as telling as the actual contents.

Thu Jun. 19, 2014 12:19 PM EDT
Mon Apr. 28, 2014 9:15 AM EDT
Thu Mar. 27, 2014 2:49 PM EDT
Fri Mar. 14, 2014 6:59 AM EDT
Tue Jan. 28, 2014 10:40 AM EST
Tue Jan. 28, 2014 9:40 AM EST
Mon Nov. 25, 2013 12:09 PM EST
Fri Oct. 11, 2013 11:20 AM EDT
Tue Sep. 10, 2013 9:10 PM EDT
Tue Sep. 10, 2013 12:02 PM EDT
Mon Sep. 9, 2013 9:13 AM EDT
Tue Apr. 30, 2013 3:32 PM EDT
Mon Apr. 8, 2013 12:00 PM EDT
Fri Mar. 29, 2013 9:22 AM EDT