Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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Scott Brown Goes Birther on Elizabeth Warren

| Wed May 9, 2012 3:01 AM EDT
Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D).

On Tuesday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) went birther on Elizabeth Warren. "Serious questions have been raised about the legitimacy of Elizabeth Warren's claims to Native American ancestry," Brown said in a statement released to the press

But given the available evidence concerning Warren's ancestry, Brown is essentially implying there may have been an elaborate, years-long effort to fake his opponent's heritage—not unlike the conspiracy envisioned by right-wing activists who sought "answers" about President Obama's citizenship. (The Brown campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

This faux controversy stems from a series of articles in the Boston Herald, which reported that Warren had listed herself as Native American in a Harvard Law School faculty directory. (Brown's top adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, is a former Herald reporter.) This fueled criticism on the right that Warren had falsely claimed Native American status to advance her legal career. Now this bizarre kerfuffle has snowballed well beyond that, as conservatives pursue an in-depth probe of Warren's great-great-great grandmother's ethnicity and whether Warren's great-great-great-uncle lied about it.

What's known is this: As the Herald reported after publishing its initial story on Warren's background, researchers at the New England Historical Genealogical Society believe that one of Warren's great-great-great grandmothers, a woman named O.C. Sarah Smith, was Cherokee. If O.C. Sarah Smith was full-blooded, that would make Warren at least 1/32 Cherokee. (While that may seem insubstantial, Bill John Baker, the principal chief of the Cherokee nation, is also 1/32 Cherokee.) The NEHGS based its claim on a March 2006 newsletter referencing research by a woman named Lynda Smith. The newsletter reports that while digging into her own ancestry, Smith found a marriage application in which William J. Crawford, a son of O.C. Sarah Smith, listed his mother's race as Cherokee.

The NEHGS considers the newsletter to be a legitimate source, says Tom Champoux, a spokesman for the group. "Genealogists do reference research conducted by others, with further verification sometimes provided," he said in an emailed statement. "In the case of Native American research, it's not uncommon for families to pass down family histories orally, especially with earlier generations, as paper evidence and primary documents were not kept." But in this case there is a primary document cited—the marriage application.

Even this, however, has not been enough for Warren's critics. A day after publishing its story revealing the marriage application, the Herald published a follow-up implying the document may not actually exist. The article argued that genealogists had been "unable to back up earlier accounts" of Warren's ancestry because a copy of the marriage application has yet to be produced. Over at Breitbart.com, Michael Patrick Leahy, whose hobby is genealogy, has chimed in with a new wrinkle. Based on Census and other records, he argues that William J. Crawford either lied or was mistaken about his mother's race:

[W]hy would Ms. Warren's great-great-grand-uncle make up such a thing? Perhaps he showed the same kind of tendency towards ancestral "embellishment" that she herself seems to exhibit, or perhaps there was some logistical or tactical benefit in the Oklahoma Territory of 1894 to him and his intended bride that encouraged him to make the claim. Or perhaps he believed it to be true, even though in all probability it was not. We will likely never know.

(It's hard to imagine why a man wouldn't know his own mother's ethnicity. At a time when Native Americans were being herded onto reservations at gunpoint, it's unclear what conceivable benefit there would have been to falsely claiming Native American status. And even if William J. Crawford did lie for some reason, it's hard to see how Warren could have known about it.)

By jumping into this controversy, Brown seems to be embracing the same tortured, birther-esque arguments as the conservatives who are trying to paint Warren (and her great-great-great-uncle) as a liar. Perhaps the better question is why Brown is raising these "serious questions" to begin with.

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US Charges Yonas Fikre, American Who Claimed Torture, With Conspiracy

| Thu May 3, 2012 8:30 PM EDT
Yonas Fikre

Last month, Mother Jones broke the story of Yonas Fikre. An American Muslim now living in Sweden, Fikre claims he was tortured in the United Arab Emirates at the US government's request after refusing to become an informant for the FBI. On Tuesday, less than three weeks after Fikre's allegations were made public, the Justice Department charged Fikre, his brother Dawit Woldehawariat, and a third man, Abrehaile Haile, with conspiring to hide $75,000 worth of money transfers to the UAE and Sudan from the government, all in violation of federal reporting requirements for large international financial transactions. Woldehawariat, Fikre's brother, was also charged with failing to file a tax return in 2009 and 2010.

There are no allegations of terrorism associated with the charges. 

Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations who has been working with Fikre, told Mother Jones on Wednesday that the federal charges were retaliation for Fikre's refusal to cooperate with the FBI. "It is disappointing but not surprising that the FBI is retaliating against Yonas by filing specious charges against him after they promised to make his life difficult after he refused to become their informant," Abbas wrote in an email. "While FBI agents lied to Yonas about many things, in this case, it seems that they have kept their word."

Thomas Nelson, Fikre's Portland, Oregon-based lawyer, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Tuesday that he was unaware of the charges against his client. But Abbas said he's been in touch with Nelson since then and the two are working together to decide what to do next.

Here's the charging document:

 

And here's the detention request:

 

READ: Letter to Justice Department About Alleged Proxy Detainee Yonas Fikre

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 12:01 PM EDT
Yonas Fikre, who claims he was detained and tortured at the behest of the US government, is shown here in a still image from a video recorded by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Earlier this week, I broke the story of Yonas Fikre, a 33-year-old Muslim American from Oregon who claims that he was detained and tortured in the United Arab Emirates on behalf of the US government. Fikre is now in Sweden, where he and his lawyers were scheduled to hold a press conference on Wednesday morning. On Wednesday, Portland's Willamette Week and Oregonian published stories on Fikre's ordeal. Oregon Public Broadcasting adds the detail that Fikre has applied for asylum in Sweden.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has been helping Fikre, has given me a copy of a letter the group sent to Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, describing Fikre's ordeal, asking that Perez investigate "whether Mr. Fikre was detained and tortured at the behest of any agent of the U.S. government," and demanding that he be allowed to return to the United States without "further unconstitutional interference." You can read it here:

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