A convoy of fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an Al Qaeda-linked group
With the crisis in Iraq intensifying, conservative media outlets have searched for a fall guy and found one: President Barack Obama. In recent days, conservative websites have peddled the claim that it was Obama who freed the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic militant group currently overrunning cities in northern Iraq and threatening Baghdad. Referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads ISIS, the Daily Mail asserts, "Obama SET FREE the merciless terrorist warlord now leading the ISIS horde blazing a trail of destruction through Iraq." Right-wing author David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine claims Baghdadi, who was once held by US forces in Iraq, was released "on Obama's watch." And RedState.comsays Baghdadi was let go under the Obama administration's "policy of releasing terrorists." But they have it wrong: It was an agreement signed by President George W. Bush in 2008 that led to Baghdadi's release in 2009.
In 2005, US military forces captured Baghdadi. (There are not many public details about his capture or his role then in the ongoing insurgency.) He was held in a US-run detention camp in southern Iraq called Camp Bucca, where he remained for several years.
In 2008, while reducing the numbers of US troops in the country, Bush signed an agreement with the Iraqi government that mandated that all detainees be handed over to Iraqi forces. In accordance with this agreement, Baghdadi was transferred to Iraqi custody in 2009, and by 2010, the Iraqi government (for a reason not explained publicly) had set him free. That same year, Baghdadi assumed leadership of ISIS. He has since been dubbed "the new bin Laden."
It's not as if Bush could have prevented Baghdadi's release by maintaining control over detainees—in part because his administration had so screwed up on this front. (See Abu Ghraib.) At the time, "the United States' detainee programs had become a black eye," says Patrick Johnston, an expert on Iraqi insurgent groups at the RAND Corporation. US-run detention facilities were overcrowded; some prisoners were tortured. Continuing a large US-controlled detainee program "was a political nonstarter," he adds.
Once detainees were out of American hands, "the United States has relatively little leverage over its friends' and allies' choices," says Jacqueline Hazelton, a counterterrorism expert at the Naval War College. (She does not speak on behalf of the college.) And there was no telling what the Iraqis would do with the tens of thousands of suspected insurgents handed over.
As for Baghdadi, he was not identified as a particularly dangerous detainee. "He was a bad dude, but he wasn't the worst of the worst," Kenneth King, the former commander of Camp Bucca, told Fox News last week.
Many other prisoners like Baghdadi were released once the United States transferred them to the Iraqis, says Theodore Karasik, the director of research and consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. And this is not an uncommon practice. Afghanistan, which last year took control of the last US-run detention center there, has already released prisoners against US objections.
Last week, Baghdadi's Sunni terror group, which counts up to 10,000 members, seized the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, routing US-trained Iraqi troops with stunning speed. ISIS, which sprouted up after the US-led invasion in 2003, is said to make "Al Qaeda look old-fashioned"; it is extra ruthless, well funded, and Twitter savvy. The militant group already controls parts of northern Syria and much of western Iraq, and it is fighting to take control of nearly two dozen more major Iraqi towns and cities.
Under Baghdadi's leadership, ISIS has become a profound and vexing threat to the Iraqi government and the region, but his rise to power cannot be pinned on Obama. If conservatives want to cite Baghdadi's release as a cause of the current crisis, then they should focus on the guy in charge before Obama.
The Washington Post broke a big scoop on Tuesday with the news that US special forces, working with FBI agents, mounted a secret raid in Libya this past weekend that captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, who is suspected of masterminding the attack on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi that resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The Post story noted that the operation had been months in the making. In fact, US Special Forces had a plan to apprehend Abu Khattala last October, days after US commandos in Tripoli snatched Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, who was accused of bombing US embassies in East Africa in 1998. But that attempt to apprehend Abu Khattala had to be called off at the last minute.
So for a long stretch, maybe a year or more, the Obama administration had been trying to figure out how best to grab Abu Khattala, who was identified as a possible Benghazi ringleader soon after the September 11, 2012, assault. Yet for much of that time, Republican critics of the president have repeatedly criticized Obama for not capturing the Benghazi perps. Even though it took a decade to nab Osama bin Laden, GOPers have depicted Obama as feckless on the Benghazi front, with some even saying that he was not truly interested in bringing the Benghazi killers to justice.
Here's a sampling of those GOP attacks:
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas): In November, Cruz criticized the Obama administration for failing to use a State Department program that offers rewards to people with information about terrorists in order to track down the Benghazi attacker: "The State Department's Rewards for Justice Program exists to help the US identify and apprehend its enemies, but the Obama administration has not used it to pursue the terrorists who attacked our personnel in Benghazi," he said.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.): In August, Issa, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has held numerous hearings on the Benghazi attack, harped on the administration's "delay" in apprehending Abu Khattala: "If our government knows who perpetrated the attack that killed four Americans, it is critical that they be questioned and placed in custody of US officials without delay," he said. "Delays in apprehending the suspected Benghazi killers will only put American lives at further and needless risk."
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.): In a February letter to Obama, the three GOP senators wrote, "In almost 17 months, none of the terrorists have been brought to justice. The families of the murdered Americans deserve to see the terrorists brought to justice. Moreover, terrorists around the world need to know that if they kill Americans, we will hunt them down and bring them to justice. Allowing terrorists apparently involved in the attack to sit and give interviews in cafés sends a dangerous message that there are no consequences for killing Americans."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah): "[L]et's not forget the Benghazi terrorist attackers," Chaffetz told USA Today in October. "There's been no visibility on whether or not we're pursuing that."
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.): In August, when the Justice Department filed charges against Abu Khattala, Wolf suggested the administration wouldn't have acted without Republican pressure. "I think they're feeling pressure to do something, to show they're making progress," he told the Washington Times, adding that charges against suspects have likely been delayed by "confusion" among US law enforcement authorities.
By now, it should be obvious: It can take a while—even years—to capture a suspected terrorist overseas. (Ruqai, the embassy bombings suspect, was apprehended 15 years after the attacks.) Yet that didn't stop these Republicans and other conservatives from slamming the president and suggesting publicly—in a real underhanded dig—that Obama was not seeking the murderers of Benghazi. Now what will they say? That his heart wasn't really in it?
Verizon lobbyists are canvassing Capitol Hill with a curious new argument against net neutrality—it hurts disabled people.
The odd pitch comes as the Obama administration is mulling a plan to scrap net neutrality—the idea that Internet service providers should treat all websites equally—and instead allow ISPs to create Internet "fast lanes" for companies that can afford to pay for speedier service. The proposal, which is under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission, has sparked a massivepublicoutcry, including an "Occupy the FCC" protest and a letter signed by 150 tech companies, including Google, Amazon, and Netflix, opposing the plan.
Three Hill sources tell Mother Jones that Verizon lobbyists have cited the needs of blind, deaf, and disabled people to try to convince congressional staffers and their bosses to get on board with the fast lane idea. But groups representing disabled Americans, including the National Association of the Deaf, the National Federation of the Blind, and the American Association of People with Disabilities are not advocating for this plan. Mark Perriello, the president and CEO of the AAPD, says that this is the "first time" he has heard "these specific talking points."
There's no doubt that blind and deaf people, who use special online services to communicate, need access to zippy Internet. Similarly, smartphone-based medical devices that are popular with disabled people require fast Internet service. Telecom industry lobbyists have argued that, without a fast lane, disabled Americans could get stuck with subpar service as Internet traffic increases. AAPD's Perriello says this rationale could be genuine but seems "convenient."
Defenders of net neutrality are more cynical. The Verizon lobbyists' argument is "disingenuous," says Matt Wood, a policy director at Free Press, an Internet freedom advocacy group. The FCC says that even if the agency doesn't go through with its fast lane proposal, companies that serve disabled people would still be able to pay internet service providers for faster service.
A spokesman for Verizon wouldn't confirm that Verizon lobbyists have used the disabled access pitch, but he says the company's position on the FCC's proposal is "not disingenuous." (Verizon has not taken a public stance on the FCC's proposed fast lane rule.) An FCC spokesman says the agency is evaluating the industry's disability argument.
The roots of the net neutrality fight go back more than a decade. In 2002, the George W. Bush-era FCC decided to classify the internet as an "information service" instead of a public utility, protecting internet services from the stringent regulations that land line phones fall under. For years, free Internet advocates urged the FCC to reclassify the internet, but the commission resisted.
Last month, the FCC dealt a major blow to net neutrality by proposing new rules that would allow Internet service providers to charge online content providers such as Facebook and Netflix higher rates for faster service. The move caused a national outcry. Last week, the FCC's website crashed after comedian John Oliver urged Internet "trolls" to comment at the agency's website. In response to public ire, the FCC has said it will reconsider classifying the Internet as a common utility.
The telecom industry is striving to ensure that the agency doesn't do that. In 2014 alone, Internet service providers have spent close to $19 million lobbying on net neutrality, according to Senate lobbying records:
This is not the first time the industry has cited the needs of disabled people as it sought to influence FCC rules. Verizon made this argument five years ago when the commission was drafting new regulations for ISPs. In a 2009 speech, former Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg said that if his company was not allowed to prioritize certain medical data over internet traffic like email and spam, then people with health conditions might not benefit from life-saving technological advances.
The decision the FCC makes in the coming months could "change the course of the Internet for a long time to come," says Michael Copps, who served as an FCC commissioner from 2001 to 2011, "perhaps in ways that will be impossible to reverse."
Poverty in America remains stuck at record levels. But people who are poor aren't that bad off—because they can afford booze, cigarettes, and TVs, the car insurance industry said Monday.
The odd rationale was included in a letter to the Federal Insurance Office, an insurance industry watchdog, in response to a request for comments on whether auto insurance is affordable for low-income Americans.
The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC), which represents half of the nation's car insurance companies, asserts in its letter that households in the lowest two-fifths of the income spectrum spend nearly as much on alcohol and cigarettes as they do on car insurance, and even more on "audio and visual (A/V) equipment and services." Therefore, the industry group says, "it seems implausible to suggest that automobile insurance is not 'affordable' for these consumers."
The Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a consumer advocacy group, calls the trade group's comments not only "offensive," but "factually incorrect." Here's why: Only about 19 percent of all low-income households spend any money on cigarettes in a typical three-month period, and only 22 percent spend any money on alcohol. When you average all low-income household spending, you find that these households spend about $102 more a year on car insurance than on cigarettes and alcohol, according to the most recent numbers from the federal government’s Consumer Expenditure Survey.
"Many households spend nothing on these products and this abuse of statistics reveals the underlying disrespect that many auto insurers have for low-income drivers," CFA's director of insurance J. Robert Hunter said Tuesday.
To fix this, a bipartisan group of Representatives introduced legislation earlier this year that would reinstate many of the VRA's voter protections. House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)—after trekking to Selma, Alabama on a civil rights pilgrimage—became the only member of the GOP leadership to back the bill, called the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA). Now Cantor is out of the picture, and some advocates say that without his support, a voting rights fix is doomed.
"I think that Cantor’s loss is the nail in the coffin for the VRAA," says one Democratic House aide who has worked on the legislation. The GOP chair of the House judiciary committee has blocked the bill for months now, and conservative groups opposed to the measure have been making a ruckus. Now "there isn't anyone like Cantor... working to bring Republicans to the table," the aide says.
"I don't see other Republican leaders or candidates for Republican leadership showing any interest in picking up... that mantle," another House staffer adds.
Some voting rights advocates are holding out hope that Cantor will push the VRAA through the House before he leaves office. "It has been clear that his feelings on voting rights were grounded in his personal experience of going to Selma with [civil rights icon Rep.] John Lewis," says Estelle Rogers, the legislative director at the voting rights advocacy group Project Vote. "We hope he can now act…without politics clouding the issue."
There's still time. If Cantor convinces House judiciary committee chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to bring the voting rights fix bill up for a vote in the next few weeks so that it can move through the full House and the Senate, there's a chance that the legislation could protect voters in the midterms this fall.
Cantor's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.