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.

Get my RSS |

The Awlaki Memo Leak

| Mon Oct. 10, 2011 4:15 PM EDT
Suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike in late September.

Here's something I wrote on January 11:

Sometime during Barack Obama's term in office, there's a good chance an American citizen will be killed on the president's orders.

Perhaps it will be Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born Al Qaeda propagandist hiding in Yemen... And when that person meets his fiery end, it's quite possible that the American people still won't have a good sense of exactly why the President believes he has the legal authority to authorize the killing of US citizens without charge or trial.

Awlaki, of course, was killed by just such a strike late last month. And at the time of Awlaki's death, Americans still didn't have a good sense of exactly why the President believed he had the authority to order such an attack. As my January article explained, decisions like the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen suspected of terrorism are almost invariably justified by a memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel—the division charged with telling the government what it is and isn't allowed to do. When Awlaki was killed, there was no way of knowing how the OLC justified the strike, because the relevant memo was still secret. 

This weekend, however, we found out quite a bit about what that Awlaki memo says. On Saturday, the New York Times' Charlie Savage published a story laying out the contents of the memo in great detail. Spencer Ackerman and Kevin Drum have more on the actual substance of the OLC's argument, and the Washington Post's Peter Finn had a good story Monday laying out the growing support for releasing the document in its entirety. But the fact the leak happened in the first place is almost as interesting as what was leaked. Here's Lawfare's Ben Wittes on that [emphasis added]:

I doubt very much that this is an entirely unauthorized rogue "leak"—in the sense that there are secrets here that the government very much wants to keep but that some individual decided on his or her own to disclose. I suspect, rather, that this is a situation in which the government–or some senior official therein–has decided to disclose the memo without disclosing it. This approach is fully consistent with the larger strategy of the administration on the subject of drones and targeting killing—to talk about the subject a great deal by way of claiming credit for big counterterrorism successes but to do so without talking about it at all officially. And it’s wrong. Either this program is a secret, in which case the government should stop talk[ing] to Charlie about it, or it’s not a secret, in which case it should figure out what is releasable in the memo and release it. There is no middle ground here—no legitimate middle ground, anyway—in which the right approach is coyness.

There's a point to be made here—one that Wittes alludes to—about the Obama administration's attitude toward leaks of top-secret information. The Obama White House has been extremely harsh in its treatment of government whistleblowers and other spillers of government secrets. But when the government wants to brag about something secret to the press—say, the Awlaki killing, or the fact they targeted him in the first place—or explain its actions behind the shield of anonymity, the normal rules don't seem to apply. I asked the Justice Department on Monday morning if they plan to investigate the Awlaki memo leak, or if they could even tell me generally about which sorts of leaks they choose to investigate. I haven't heard back. 

Advertise on

Scott Brown Calls Elizabeth Warren Ugly

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 10:40 AM EDT
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) doesn't think anyone should have to see Elizabeth Warren naked.

At Tuesday night's primary debate, Warren, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Brown, used a question about how she paid for tuition to take a jab at the freshman Senator. "I kept my clothes on," Warren said, referring to Brown's famed nude Cosmopolitan spread

Brown could have brushed off the attack, but instead, he decided on the worst possible course of action. According to Boston journalist Joe Battenfield, Brown said "Thank God," in response to Warren's jab. You can hear the audio of the comment at 3:30 here:


A Warren campaign spokesman declined to comment, but to state the obvious: By saying "Thank God," Brown was implying that Warren is ugly. Brown's comment might seem hilarious to your average bro, but elections aren't won by bros alone. Attacking your female opponent for her looks won't necessarily play well with women voters, and Brown can't afford to lose much more ground than he already has: several polls have already shown Warren within striking distance of the incumbent.

Several media figures think Brown has made a serious mistake by attacking Warren's looks. American Banker's Rob Blackwell has suggested this may be Brown's "Macaca moment"—referring to when then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) used the word "Macaca" to address a dark-skinned employee of his opponent, James Webb. (Allen lost.) Slate's Dave Weigel also joked that (Brown's previous opponent) Martha Coakley might be running Brown's campaign, and TPM's Josh Marshall called the comment "not smart."

Hey Kids, Wanna Listen to "Peter and the Wolf"? Then Pay Up.

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 8:45 AM EDT

You—the public—once essentially owned the Sergei Prokofiev classic Peter and the Wolf. You could play it for your friends and charge admission. You could remix it with other music. You could write a book called Peter and the Wolf and Zombies. You didn't have to worry about getting sued because the work was in the public domain. 

Then, in 1994, Congress suddenly snatched Peter and the Wolf and millions of other works out of the public domain. The move was part of a deal to secure broader copyright protection for American works in foreign countries. (Not that it worked very well: As anyone who has ever been there knows, it's not exactly hard to find DVDs of newly released Hollywood movies on the streets of Moscow.)

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Golan v. Holder, a case that addresses whether it was constitutional for Congress to remove Peter and the Wolf and other works from the public domain. The case was brought by University of Denver professor Lawrence Golan, a conductor who loves Peter and the Wolf but can no longer afford the fees the copyright holders charge for the sheet music. I listened to David Bowie's narration of Peter and the Wolf (something that may have not even been created if Peter and the Wolf hadn't been in the public domain at the time) about 100 times growing up, so the prospect of not being able to take my children to see a live performance of the piece is a real bummer.

Mon Jul. 21, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Mon Feb. 4, 2013 10:23 AM EST
Tue Nov. 6, 2012 8:47 PM EST
Fri Sep. 21, 2012 4:40 PM EDT
Sun Aug. 19, 2012 5:21 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 30, 2012 10:16 AM EDT
Mon Jul. 9, 2012 9:04 AM EDT
Thu Jun. 28, 2012 11:40 AM EDT
Wed Jun. 20, 2012 6:30 AM EDT
Mon Jun. 11, 2012 9:32 AM EDT
Mon Jun. 4, 2012 8:43 AM EDT
Wed May. 9, 2012 2:01 AM EDT
Tue Mar. 20, 2012 10:15 AM EDT
Fri Feb. 10, 2012 12:56 PM EST