2013 - %3, June

Snowden's Tour of the World's Least Press-Friendly Countries

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 2:15 PM EDT

Last time we checked, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had left Hong Kong with China's blessing and was headed to Moscow, reportedly in transit to Cuba and finally, Ecuador. (He's also expressed interest in getting to Iceland.) His current whereabouts are unknown. While we play "Where in the World Is Edward Snowden?," here's a quick look at the countries his odyssey has taken him to or may take him to, viewed through the lens of their relative records on press freedom, political liberties, and corruption, as determined by Reporters Without BordersFreedom House, and Transparency International:

Country Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking (1=most free, 179=least) Freedom House press freedom score (0=highest, 100=lowest) Freedom House political rights/civil liberties ratings (1=highest, 7=lowest) Transparency International corruption perceptions ranking (1=least corrupt, 174=most)
United States 32 18 1/1 19
Hong Kong 58 35 14
China 173 83 7/6 80
Russia 148 81 6/5 133
Cuba 171 92 7/6 58
Ecuador 119 61 3/3 118
Iceland 9 14 1/1 11

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Is the Clock Running Down on Immigration Reform?

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 1:32 PM EDT

Over at National Journal, Fawn Johnson argues that immigration reform is probably dead. We just don't know it yet. The problem, she says, is the legislative calendar. The Senate will probably finish up its work shortly, but:

After senators get the bill done — probably in time to make their weekend barbeques — they have a weeklong July 4 break. And then they get to wait for colleagues on the other side of the Capitol who will have four weeks — four weeks — to deliberate before Congress takes off for an even lengthier recess in August.

....[This is] the month in which legislation dies. The last time the Senate passed a major immigration bill in 2006, House Republicans used the August recess to kill it by staging a series of hearings around the country that did nothing but rile up conservatives against it.

....When lawmakers return to the Capitol in September, they will be facing another financial crisis as they debate raising the country's debt ceiling. The four- to six-week countdown toward extreme limitations on government payments to Social Security or military operations will do two things: It will suck all the life out of any deliberative legislative effort, immigration included, and it will polarize the political parties. It will be far from fertile ground for the biggest immigration overhaul in 30 years.

I still think this depends entirely on the House leadership. If they decide they want to pass immigration reform and get it off the table for good, they can do it in four weeks. If they don't want to, they can pretty easily fritter away the time. So we're back to square one: do Republican leaders desperately want to put this whole thing behind them, regardless of the howling from the tea partiers, or do they care more about the backlash from their conservative white base than they do about picking up Hispanic votes in 2016? That's always been the question, and it still is. The calendar is just another tool they can use to work their will.

Immigration Reform Bill Has Too Many Words (But At Least They're in English)

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 12:40 PM EDT

Is the Senate's immigration reform bill really a mammoth 1,200 pages long? Paul Waldman tries to tell us it's not: "Bills in Congress are printed with huge margins and double-spaced, with lots of indentations to boot....So you can say 'It's 1,200 pages long!', but that probably equates to about as many words as a book that's 3 or 400 pages long."

That's....just not going to work. I suspect that even Paul agrees it's a hopeless argument. But the real question is why this has become such a favorite gripe from the tea party set. I mean, who cares how long a bill is? If you don't like immigration reform, you don't like immigration reform. You still wouldn't like it if the bill were 20 pages long instead of 1,200. So why the newfound obsession over bill length? Here are a few guesses:

  • They're convinced that the only reason a bill could be so long is to hide stuff in the nooks and crannies. A 1,200-page bill probably has a clause in there giving immigrants free Obamaphones for life, but it's so cleverly disguised that no one will ever notice.
  • It's part of the general tea party longing for a simpler age. Laws didn't used to be so long, after all, and America got along fine. Hell, the entire Constitution fits on one page!
  • Generally speaking, a long bill does more than a short bill. It provides more hooks for government regulation and expansion of federal power, both of which conservatives oppose.
  • It just sounds good.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that conservatives were also pretty unhappy with the original TARP bill, which clocked in at a svelte three pages. It was, they said, a "blank check." (Lots of liberals agreed.) Given this, you can conclude either (a) there's a sweet spot of about 100 pages that tea partiers consider a Platonic ideal for bills, or (b) they don't like certain bills, and length is just a red herring. I'm going with option B for the moment.

WikiLeaks: We Know Where Snowden Is, But We're Not Telling You

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 12:21 PM EDT

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been officially indicted by the United States under the Espionage Act, is en route to Ecuador, one of at least two countries in which he is seeking asylum, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said today on a call with reporters. Assange would not provide further details on Snowden's current whereabouts. The whistleblower arrived in Moscow on Sunday, fleeing Hong Kong after China urged his departure in order to avoid a messy extradition battle with the United States, according to Reuters. Snowden was scheduled to fly to Havana early Monday morning, but he never boarded the plane.

Assange blasted the Obama administration for seeking Snowden's extradition and interfering with his quest for asylum, which WikiLeaks is assisting with. He said that focusing on Snowden distracts from the sweeping surveillance program that he exposed.

"Snowden has issued an asylum application to Ecuador and possibly other countries," Assange said from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he is himself avoiding extradition by Sweden and potentially the United States. "We are aware where Mr. Snowden is. He is in a safe place and his spirits are high, but due to the bellicose threats coming from the US administration, we cannot go into further details at this time." Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesman, added that Snowden is also formally seeking asylum in Iceland, but wouldn't name other potential countries that he is petitioning for safe haven. 

After Snowden arrived in Moscow on Sunday, Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino Aroca, tweeted that Ecuador had received an asylum request from Snowden. Assange says that the application is being carefully considered. 

National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden issued a statement Monday morning urging Russia to send Snowden back to the United States: "Given our intensified cooperation after the Boston marathon bombings and our history of working with Russia on law enforcement matters—including returning numerous high level criminals back to Russia at the request of the Russian government—we expect the Russian Government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged."

Michael Ratner, an attorney for WikiLeaks and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said on the call that it's troubling to see the United States trying to block asylum for someone who is a "clear whistleblower." He added, however, that "maybe it's not so surprising," given the Obama administration's history of cracking down on whistleblowers.

Questions have been raised about Snowden's whistleblower status, particularly since, after disclosing the NSA's domestic surveillance efforts, he revealed sensitive national security information about US cyberattacks in China, alleging that the NSA hacked the text messages of Chinese mobile phone users. In an online chat with the Guardian, Snowden claimed: "I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets." According to CNN, Snowden told Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa in a letter that he fears that if he is sent back to the United States, it is "unlikely that I will have a fair trial or humane treatment."

"The Obama administration was not given a mandate by the people of the United States to hack and spy upon the entire world," Assange said. "To now attempt to violate international asylum law by calling for the rendition of Edward Snowden further demonstrates the breakdown in the rule of law by the Obama administration, which sadly has become familiar to so many."

Supreme Court Punts on Big Affirmative Action Case

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 10:54 AM EDT

Well, the Supreme Court has finally handed down a ruling in one of this year's high-profile cases, and.....it punted. In a case challenging affirmative action at the University of Texas, the Supremes ruled that the Fifth Circuit court failed to apply strict scrutiny when it upheld the university's claim that affirmative action was necessary as a way of promoting diversity. Key quote: "The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity."

So now it goes back to the Fifth Court, and then most likely back up to the Supreme Court someday. For now, nothing has changed.

Bernanke Tries to Contain Wall Street Panic

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 10:43 AM EDT

John Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal says that investors overreacted to Ben Bernanke's suggestion last week that the Fed might taper off its QE program in the near future:

One problem the Fed now faces is that in signaling its plans for the so-called quantitative-easing program, Mr. Bernanke might have led investors to believe the central bank is going to rein in all of its easy-money policies sooner or more aggressively than it actually expects.

The Fed isn't just buying bonds; it also has long held short-term interest rates close to zero, and has said since December it will keep its benchmark federal-funds rate there until the jobless rate falls to at least 6.5%. Mr. Bernanke likens the two levers to driving a car: When it reduces its bond purchases, that will be like lightening the pressure on the accelerator; when it starts raising rates, it will be akin to tapping the brake.

Many investors appear to have missed Mr. Bernanke's signals that the Fed might wait longer than expected before raising short-term rates. He said on Wednesday that the 6.5% unemployment rate threshold might be too high and that the Fed might decide to keep rates low for long after the rate drops below that level, especially if inflation remains low.

Hmmm. So QE might end soon, but interest rates might stay at zero longer than expected. So why the panic?

My cynical response would be that markets just like to panic. It's what they do, and they're more panic-prone than ever these days. Partly this is because the economy is genuinely weak. Partly it's because Fed actions are more important right now than they usually are. Partly it's because Wall Street has gotten too accustomed to making money on model-based investing that relies on tiny spreads. Even a hint of a change in those spreads is now enough to send them screaming for the hills.

In any case, I expect the panic to subside soon—though outside events in China and Europe could obviously change that. But if either China or Europe go splat, a few words from Ben Bernanke aren't going to matter anyway.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Obama Finally—Finally!—Picks 2 Nominees for the Federal Election Commission

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

After years of nudging and complaining from good-government types, President Obama finally has begun the process of making some changes over at the Federal Election Commission, the nation's beleaguered campaign watchdog. Last week, Obama nominated Ann Ravel, the feisty chairwoman of California's Fair Political Practices Commission, and Lee Goodman, a DC-based attorney at the firm LeClairRyan.

On its face, this is good news. All five commissioners currently at the FEC (there are usually six; one commissioner, Cynthia Bauerly, resigned in February) are working past their term's expiration date, because Obama and the Congress have not put forward any new nominees. The entire leadership of the FEC, in other words, should've been replaced months or years ago. Ravel and Goodman must still be nominated by the Senate, but if confirmed, they would be the first new commissioners to arrive at the FEC since Obama became president.

Progressive groups that oppose super-PACs and want less big money in politics cheered Obama's nominations but urged him to do more to reshuffle the FEC's lineup. "The process of fixing the FEC needs to begin with President Obama nominating and the Senate confirming a full, new complement of six commissioners," Democracy 21, a pro-regulation group, said in a statement.

The FEC is not only dogged by commissioners serving on borrowed time. Critics of the commission—which, by design, features six commissioners, usually three left-leaning and three right-leaning—say it is Exhibit A in regulatory gridlock. Here's what I wrote in 2011 about the FEC:

…During the George W. Bush era, GOP leaders packed the commission with a trio of conservative ideologues, and today the FEC epitomizes gridlock. Between 2003 and 2008, the commission deadlocked on about 1 percent of its enforcement actions, according to an analysis by Public Citizen (PDF); the numbers spiked to 16 percent and 11 percent in 2009 and 2010. Scott Thomas, a former Democratic FEC chairman, says the GOP members increasingly clash even with the commission's own legal staff. "For almost the entire history of the FEC, the commissioners were open to receiving recommendations from the staff," Thomas says. "Now they are being stopped cold by those three commissioners." The leader of the FEC's conservative clique is Donald McGahn, a shaggy-haired attorney (known to play the guitar while prepping for case rulings) who opposes just about all campaign-finance laws. He previously was counsel to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was convicted by a Texas jury last fall for laundering corporate donations. (McGahn did not respond to a request for comment.)

So what do we know about Obama's nominees?

In Ravel, left-leaning groups have an ally. As the head of California's election watchdog, the FPPC, she made a name for herself by aggressively investigating the source(s) of $11 million in secret donations made to influence two contentious ballot propositions in 2012. (That investigation remains underway.) As I reported, this particular FPPC probe, prompted by Ravel, is perhaps the most worrisome to conservatives because it could lift the veil on the web of nonprofit groups and donors shuffling dark money around the country. "This case has got very, very deep and significant implications," one conservative lobbyist told me.

Goodman, on the other hand, comes at the money-in-politics issue from a different angle. A supporter of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, Goodman recently argued—and ultimately lost—a case named United States v. Danielczyk that would've reversed the long-standing ban on corporations giving money directly to candidates.

A mighty high hurdle awaits both Ravel and Goodman: the Senate. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, is a fierce enemy of campaign finance laws, and it's no secret that the road to confirmation for any FEC nominee runs through him. If he opts not to block either Ravel or Goodman, then there is hope for fresh faces at the FEC. If he does, it could be back to square one.

Report: Subcontractors in Afghanistan Do Crazy Things When They Don't Get Paid

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

A new report released last week suggests that shoddy contracting practices are fomenting discontent and distrust among Afghan contractors, damaging efforts to foster Afghan businesses, and undermining the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported that $69 million in unpaid bills owed to Afghan subcontractors have led to death and kidnapping threats, work stoppages, fraud, at least one car chase, and the use of local police forces to extract payment.

Here are some of the highlights from the report:

  • In one instance, an irate Afghan subcontractor threatened to bomb the compound housing the US prime contractor and a slew of US government agencies.
  • Another unpaid subcontractor, claiming his workers couldn't buy the necessities their families needed until his bill was settled, said he would set himself on fire in front of the US Embassy in protest.
  • One subcontractor threatened to use a suicide bomb to destroy a contractor's office over a payment dispute.
  • An Afghan security company's management was held at gunpoint by its own employees, who stole weapons, ammo, and uniforms, allegedly after its prime contractor had failed to make good on its bills.
  • Seeking recourse for nonpayment, a subcontractor obtained an arrest warrant for a project manager from the Afghan attorney general's office. According to the report, the subcontractor chased down the manager's vehicle to serve it himself, "trying to force him off the road in order to have him arrested," but the manager escaped and took refuge at a German forward operating base.
  • Stiffed Afghan subcontractors have shut down work sites, stolen equipment, and used the Afghan police to enforce work stoppages, according to the report. In one 2009 case, disagreement between a US firm and its Afghan workers derailed a multimillion dollar project building police stations in Badakhshan.
  • Spurned local subcontractors have started turning to the Afghan police force to resolve disputes, obtaining arrest warrants and pursuing criminal charges to extort unpaid funds. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on the arrest of David Gordon, an American mechanic contracting in Afghanistan, as part of "a growing Afghan practice of arresting foreigners connected to commercial disputes." One of the 110,404 contract workers in the country, some 33,000 of whom are US citizens, Mr. Gordon was used as leverage in a $2.4 million dispute between his employer and an Afghan firm. He was released from the Kabul jail where he was being held only after the US government intervened.

The pervasiveness of these sorts of disputes, the report claims, is "eroding support for US and coalition forces" because Afghans believe "that coalition forces failed to pay for projects that Afghans have worked on." Between 2009 and October 2012, a quarter of the complaints SIGAR received were related to contractor and subcontractor nonpayment issues. These conflicts, the report claims, can undermine the trust and economic development that are crucial to the rebuilding effort and the coalition's broader counterinsurgency strategy. "SIGAR investigators have found that the prime contractor's failure to pay is often viewed by the Afghan subcontractor as a failure on the part of the US government," the report said.

Alela Diane's Powerful "About Farewell"

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Alela Diane in Amsterdam, April 2009.

Alela Diane
About Farewell
Rusted Blue Records

It's amazing how many artists on today's indie scene are old-fashioned folk musicians passing for someone trendier. California's Alela Diane has been making haunting, out-of-time albums (sometimes self-released) for a decade, and About Farewell is one of her most powerful. After enlisting producer Scott Litt of R.E.M. fame to provide a poppier veneer on her last outing, Alela Diane and Wild Divine, she's back to minimal frills with this brooding collection devoted to rejection, regret, and misguided desire.

Despite occasional sweetening from strings or piano, these eloquently downhearted ballads, perhaps inspired by her real-life divorce, would be equally potent with just guitar. Diane has "one foot out the door" on the eerie title track, while, on the elegant "I Thought I Was Wrong," she observes, "I'd only just arrived and I foresaw the end." The spare "Hazel Street" finds her confessing: "I woke up drunk on that basement floor," implying a far seedier reality than her restrained performance would suggest.

About Farewell might be mopey solipsism coming from a lesser singer, but the grave beauty of Diane's voice transcends self-indulgence. Like the great Sandy Denny, she conveys a stoic intensity that's consistently spellbinding.

 

A Pulitzer Prize Winner's Photos of the Early DC Punk Scene

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
HR of the Bad Brains at Hard Art Gallery, September 15, 1979 (Akashic Books, 2013).

Photographer Lucian Perkins earned two Pulitzer prizes during his 27 years working for the Washington Post, shooting nearly every major historical event of the past two decades. (More recently he cofounded Facing Change, a group that documents rural America in the spirit of the Farm Security Administration.) In his archives, among shots of the Berlin wall coming down, war in the former Yugoslavia, and Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank, Perkins' assistant Lely Constantinople discovered that her boss also happened to have some amazing, rarely seen photos of the early DC punk scene, shot early in Perkins' Post career.

One night in 1979, while interning in the photo department, Perkins found himself at the Hard Art gallery in DC. The young crowd's attention was fixated on an all-black punk band called the Bad Brains, who belted out tight, fast, short songs. Sensing a story, Perkins spent the following four months photographing the nascent scene.