Two Questions About Hillary Clinton's Email Server

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 1:44 PM EDT

Lots of people have asked lots of questions about Hillary Clinton and her email server. That's fair enough. But I've got a couple of questions for the people with all the questions. There might be simple answers to these, but they've been bugging me for a while and I still don't really understand them. Here they are:

  • One of the most persistent suspicions is that Hillary set up a private server in order to evade FOIA requests. But this has never made any sense to me. What could possibly have led either Hillary or her staff to believe this? There's simply nothing in either the statute or in the way it's been applied in practice to suggest that official communications are beyond the reach of FOIA just because they're in private hands.
  • On a related note, what was going on in the State Department's FOIA office? They received several FOIA requests that required them to search Hillary's email, and responded by saying there was no record of anything relevant to the request. But the very first time they did this, they must have realized that Hillary's email archive wasn't just sparse, but nonexistent. Did they ask Hillary's office about this? If not, why not? If they did, what were they told? This should be relatively easy to answer since I assume these folks can be subpoenaed and asked about it.

Generally speaking, the reason I've been skeptical about this whole affair is that the nefarious interpretations have never made much sense to me. What Hillary did was almost certainly dumb—as she's admitted herself—and it's possible that she even violated some regulations. But those are relatively minor things. Emailgate is only a big issue if there was some kind of serious intent to defraud, and that hardly seems possible:

  • Hillary's private server didn't protect her from FOIA requests and she surely knew this.
  • By all indications, she was very careful about her email use and never wrote anything she might regret if it became public.
  • And it hardly seems likely that she thought she could delete embarrassing emails before turning them over. There's simply too much risk that the missing emails would show up in someone else's account, and that really would be disastrous. Her husband might be the type to take idiotic risks like that, but she isn't.

School me, peeps. I fully acknowledge that maybe I'm just not getting something here. What's the worst case scenario that's actually plausible?

POSTSCRIPT: Note that I'm asking here solely about FOIA as it applies to the Hillary Clinton email server affair. On a broader level, FOIA plainly has plenty of problems, both in terms of response time and willingness to cooperate with the spirit of the statute.

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The Gun Violence Chart Obama Asked For

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 12:58 PM EDT

When President Barack Obama took the podium on Thursday night to speak about the mass shooting at Oregon's Umpqua Community College, he blasted Congress for its inaction on gun safety legislation. "Our thoughts and prayers are not enough," he said, visibly angry.

He also had a request for the media: "Have news organizations tally up the number of Americans who have been killed through terrorist attacks over the last decade and the number of Americans who have been killed by gun violence, and post those side by side on your news reports."

Wish granted, Mr. President. We compared gun deaths with other highly publicized causes of death in the chart below. (Note that about two-thirds of American gun deaths are suicides.) The numbers come from 2013—the most recent year that data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 12:30 PM EDT

For a blockbuster recent piece, the New York Times' Eric Lipton got a first look at a massive cache of private emails between prominent public university scientists and GMO industry executives and flacks. The emails came to light through a barrage of controversial Freedom of Information Act requests by U.S. Right to Know, which is funded by the scrappy, anti-corporate Organic Consumers Association.

In addition to the correspondence uncovered by USRTK, Lipton used the FOIA to uncover emails showing close ties between former Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook and organic food companies like farmer-owned dairy company Organic Valley. Lipton paints a fascinating picture of the place occupied by public universities in the PR and lobbying war between the agrichemical/GM seed and organic food industries.

"I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected," a Monsanto rep wrote to professors.

But his piece, excellent as it is, may actually underplay the extent to which Monsanto, other ag-biotech companies, and their trade groups and hired PR guns rely on friendly professors as foot soldiers in the industry's battle against regulators and critics.

Here are some highlights that didn't make it into the Times. Although there is no specific evidence to suggest that Monsanto paid professors for these activities, and many of the professors have said they reached their conclusions independently, the correspondence is nonetheless interesting: 

• In an August 2013 email to nine prominent academics, Monsanto's strategic engagement lead Eric Sachs broached a plan: that the group would pen "short policy briefs on important topics in the agricultural biotechnology arena," chosen "because of their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation, and consumer acceptance."

Sachs assured the professors that the project would be handled discreetly. "I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected," he wrote. Two outside entities—an industry-funded group called the American Council on Science and Health and a PR outfit called CMA—would "manage the process of producing the policy briefs," "coordinate website posting and promotion," and "merchandize" the briefs by helping turn them into "op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc." This third-party management is "an important element," the Monsanto exec added, "because Monsanto wants the authors to communicate freely without involvement by Monsanto."

In December of 2014, the zealously pro-biotech website Genetic Literacy Project ran a package of professor-penned articles that look remarkably like the ones proposed by Sachs, though no involvement with Monsanto is disclosed in any of them. For example, Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, was among the addressees on that August 2013 letter from Monsanto's Sachs. In it, Sachs laid out seven topics and suggested each to one or two of his correspondents. Here's what Sachs had in mind for Juma:

Entitled "Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology," Juma's contribution—which Juma says is based on a book that he wrote in 2011—closely resembles Sachs' request for a robust defense of GMOs as a bulwark against hunger in the developing world. (On Wednesday, The Boston Globe noted Juma's piece, describing it as a "widely disseminated policy paper last year in support of genetically modified organisms," written "at the behest of seed giant Monsanto, without disclosing his connection.")

In his email, Sachs recommended that Peter Phillips, a policy professor at Canada's University of Saskatchewan, write about "over burdensome regulation of GMO crops and food." His piece on the Genetic Literacy Project website is called "Economic Consequences of Regulations of GM Crops."

For Mississippi State's Davis Shaw and Tony Shelton of Cornell, Sachs suggested a piece defending crops modified to kill insects and withstand herbicides. Their Genetic Literacy Project article, titled "Green Genes: Sustainability Advantages of Herbicide Tolerant and Insect Resistant Crops," does just that.

"I would appreciate your consideration of submitting a blog on the safety and health of biotech to Web MD, at all possible?" a Monsanto rep asked a professor.

For University of Florida professor Kevin Folta—a main focus of the New York Times article—Sachs envisioned a piece on "holding activists accountable" for their opposition to GMOs. In his GLP piece, Folta thundered against those who "wage aggressive campaigns against existing technologies that have demonstrated to be advantageous to the farmer, the environment, the consumer, and the poor locked in nutritional deficit."

• Another prominent academic who emerges with strong industry ties is Nina Fedoroff, an emeritus professor of biology at Penn State, a professor of biosciences at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, and the former chief science and technology adviser to secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. The Times piece noted that University of Illinois professor emeritus Bruce Chassy led a "monthslong effort to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon its proposal to tighten the regulation of pesticides used on insect-resistant seeds."

But it didn't mention that Fedoroff evidently played a key role in the campaign, which, as the Times reported, culminated when Chassy "eventually set up a meeting at the E.P.A., with the help of an industry lobbyist, and the agency ultimately dropped the proposal." Fedoroff, it turns out, attended that meeting, according to an October 17 email. According to Chassy's email, the pivotal confab with the EPA was set up by Stanley Abramson, a prominent industry lobbyist, and Adrianne Massey, who serves as managing director of science and regulatory affairs at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group to which Monsanto and other ag-biotech firms belong.

Fedoroff's role in the campaign to get the EPA to back off on GMO regulation wasn't confined to that one "surprisingly productive" meeting. Chassy reports in an August 19, 2011, email to Massey that he has been "working with Nina," for "a month and many revisions" on an op-ed that ran in the New York Times on August 2011. The piece, bylined solely by Fedoroff, complained that the EPA "wants to require even more data on genetically modified crops" and concluded that the "government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm."

• In a January 10, 2012 email, Karen Batra, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, asked Chassy for advice on how to respond to an article critical of GMOs published in The Atlantic. "For most of us communications folks, the science here is way over our heads, and an appropriate response would have some kind of scientific defense," she wrote. "In other words, BIO just writing a letter saying 'biotech foods are safe' isn't enough of a response here."

"I'm excited to torpedo this stupidity," a professor told a Monsanto PR rep who had asked him to weigh in on a controversy over textbooks critical of GMOs.

She added that a group called IFIC—presumably the industry-funded International Food Information Council Foundation—had "also [sent] out a mass email asking folks to weigh in on the [Atlantic article's] comments page." Batra asked the scientists to "either post a comment yourself on the page or provide us with some top-line scientific points that we could use in a letter to the editor." Chassy responded to Batra's email with detailed talking points on the article. 

• Chassy "engaged on the Huffington Post blog at my request," a 2012 email from Monsanto's Sachs reveals—engaging in a spirited back-and-forth with an anti-GMO commentor, for which he sought input from Monsanto employees.

• At one point, Chassy agreed to Monsanto's request to travel to China to speak at a seminar, without having any idea of the topic or the audience. Here's Chassy on January 24, 2012:

You originally asked if I would go to China and do what I did in Korea. You wanted to know if I was available and said you would explain later. One thing led to another and I am now going but we never did speak about the actual mission on China. Where am I speaking?  To whom? For how long? More importantly, what is the topic and is there an assigned title? What's really going on and what are the between the lines issues? Knowing the ansers [sic] to all of these questions would really help me plan a talk. Can we talk sometime before I start putting a talk together?

Sachs responded:

I apologize for the gaps in information. This opportunity came to my attention late in the process and I was narrowly focused on finding the best 3rd-party [i.e, non-Monsanto] expert that could speak on the topic of safety assessment of products employing RNAi [a topic I discuss here.]

"Monsanto China is working with Chinese Agricultural Biotech Association to host the seminar," Sachs continues. "The goal is to pave the way for import approval for biotech products in China."

Chassy later submitted a draft of his presentation to Monsanto officials ahead of the event. (See the exchange here). "Overall, everyone is pleased with how the presentation turned out," a Monsanto employee responded, adding that there "were some minor changes in text and they are indicated in red," as well as "some comments for you to address." Chassy responded seeking more input:

Thanks to the reviewers. They picked up a number of good points. I have attached a word file which contains responses to the reviewers comments. There are a couple that remain unresolved or for which my new wording may or may not fully address the concern voiced by the reviewer. Please have each of the reviewers take a second look.

• In a January 15, 2015, email to the University of Florida's Kevin Folta, Monsanto's Lisa Drake
 wrote that "over the past six months, we have worked hard through third parties"—ie, people not affiliated with Monsanto—to "insert fresh and current" material on GMOs to WebMD. The pitch: "I would appreciate your consideration of submitting a blog on the safety and health of biotech to Web MD, at all possible?" She added, "Please consider insert [sic] the word 'labeling' somewhere in the content in order to get search algorithms to pick it up." Folta responded, "I'm glad to do this and will bounce something off you soon." (Folta says he never ended up writing the post in question.)

• And on January 28, 2015, an employee of the PR firm Ketchum—writing "on behalf of the Council for Biotech Information," a group funded by Monsanto and other biotech companies—included Folta on a group email pointing to another burning controversy: A publisher had indicated it "will update a sixth-grade science textbook that presents some of the benefits of GM crops." Worse, "additional publishing companies are considering replacing content that could be considered pro-GMO."

She asked anyone interested in responding to the textbook crisis to reply. "I'm excited to torpedo this stupidity," Folta responded, to the delight of his Ketchum correspondent. "This is the best email I've gotten all day. [Smiley-face emoticon.] Thanks! I'll be in touch as we move forward on this."

Here's What Ben Carson Means When He Talks About Political Correctness

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Here is Ben Carson on Wednesday:

At a campaign event in New Hampshire, Carson noted that many people believe a situation like what took place in Germany in the 1930's and 1940's could never happen in America. "I beg to differ," Carson said. "If you go back and look at the history of the world, tyranny and despotism and how it starts, it has a lot to do with control of thought and control of speech."

At a press conference after the speech, reporters asked Carson who he thinks is like Adolf Hitler in the U.S. "I'm not going to go into that that. I think that example is pretty clear," he responded, without elaborating.

Carson hastened to add that he wasn't referring to Barack Obama. No siree. Someone else. But not Obama. Wink wink nudge nudge.

In any case, this provides a good opportunity to highlight Carson's views on political correctness. When Donald Trump talks about it, he's using it in the usual throwaway sense we're all familiar with. He wants to be able to talk about immigrants being rapists or women being shrill and ugly without everyone getting on his case. Others have in mind trigger warnings and other campus fads. But when Ben Carson talks about it, he means much, much more. It is the core of his worldview, so it's worth understanding what he means by it. Here is Amy Davidson:

In his most recent book, “One America,” he writes that agents working against this country’s greatness include the political-correctness police, who use “faux hypersensitivity” to take power away from the majority of Americans....Political correctness, Carson says, is used to keep conservatives from invoking slavery or Nazism, both of which he cites freely. (“Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”; “We live in a Gestapo age.”)

He wonders if Obama will cause the elections to be cancelled: “He’s sitting there saying, ‘These Americans are so stupid I can tell them anything.’ ” Trump, the businessman, tells Americans how the financial system is rigged against them. Carson, the brain surgeon, tells them how they are being denied knowledge.

This explains why, at the New Hampshire event, he's talking about "control of thought and control of speech" for seemingly no reason. In fact, Carson believes that liberals are deliberately making it impossible for conservatives to talk about the truly important issues that are destroying America. Keeping everyone cowed and silent is the first step to tyranny, which is why he thinks incipient Hitlerism is something to be taken seriously. Here he is explaining this view last year, before he was running for president:

Political correctness is antithetical to our founding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Its most powerful tool is intimidation. If it is not vigorously opposed, its proponents win by default, because the victims adopt a “go along to get along” attitude. Major allies in the imposition of PC are members of the media, some of whom thrive on controversy and others who are true ideologues.

....The American people must learn to identify and ignore political correctness if we are to escape the bitter ideological grenades that are destroying our unity and strength. Political correctness is impotent if we the people are fearless. Let us emphasize intelligent discussion of issues and leave the smear campaigns to those with no constructive ideas.

Carson talks incessantly about political correctness, and he's been doing it for a long time. It is, he believes, the method by which the populace is kept too intimidated to object when liberal policies lead to moral decay and the eventual downfall of the country. You will hear him talk all the time about not being afraid to speak up, and when he does it's more than just a normal political stemwinder urging people to get involved and vote. He believes that political correctness today is the equivalent of brownshirt terrorism in 1933, and he believes that this is what brought Hitler to power in Germany. Whenever you hear Carson talk about either "political correctness" or "mind control," this is what it means to him.

Vatican: Pope Francis Barely Knew Who Kim Davis Was When He Met Her

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 11:11 AM EDT

I don't really care all that much about whether Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, but my sister is fascinated by the whole story. So this is for her. Earlier today, the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Davis was basically part of an hour-long press-the-flesh session and Francis barely even knew who she was:

“Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City,” Father Lombardi said.

He added: “Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.”

....At the Vatican on Friday, a spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, said the invitation had been extended by the office of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the nuncio, or envoy, in Washington, not from Rome....Father Rosica said of the controversy: “I would simply say: Her case is a very complex case. It’s got all kinds of intricacies. Was there an opportunity to brief the pope on this beforehand? I don’t think so. A list is given — these are the people you are going to meet.

As usual with the Catholic Church, previous popes continue to have long arms even after they die or retire. It turns out that the papal nuncio, a culturally conservative guy who's loyal to the former Benedict XVI, decided to invite Davis. The current pope apparently had no idea this would happen and may not have even known who she was. Basically, Davis was ushered in for her 60 seconds with the pope, who blessed her, gave her a rosary, and then moved along to the next person in line. It would be wise not to read too much into this.

Here Are the NRA's Tweets Since the Oregon Shooting

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 10:54 AM EDT

On Thursday morning, a gunman opened fire inside a community college in Roseburg, Oregon, killing 10 people and injuring 7 others. The massacre is the latest mass shooting to take place in the United States—and the 45th school shooting in 2015 alone, according to the gun safety coalition Everytown.

A visibly frustrated President Barack Obama noted hours after the rampage that Americans have come to view mass shootings as a "routine" experience—with news of senseless killings taking place only months, and sometimes days, apart. He exclaimed in frustration, "It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun." As for the biggest foe of gun control, the National Rifle Association, here's how it reacted to the tragedy via its Twitter feed…Actually, it did not react. The NRA's usually active Twitter feed was silent. Nada. Not a peep. No condolences to the families of those killed or any statement of concern for those injured.

But the NRA has recently been busy tweeting about other gun matters.

Note the time stamps. Its tweets on Thursday halted around the time that news of the shooting emerged. This has become S.O.P. for the gun industry-backed group. When gun massacres occur, it tends to duck and cover—and wait for the expressions of outrage and calls for gun control to pass. Then it's back to the business of opposing any efforts to enact new gun safety measures.

Update, 12:52 p.m. EST: After more than a day of silence, the NRA finally weighed in on Twitter with information about a kid's gun program.

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Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in September

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 10:51 AM EDT

The American economy added 142,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at a lackluster 52,000 jobs. The July and August numbers were revised downward by 59,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate stayed steady at 5.1 percent, partly because the number of unemployed workers was down, but partly because half a million people dropped out of the labor force. Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were flat, though weekly earnings were down at an annualized rate of 3.6 percent.

This is a pretty weak report. It's not a disaster, but it suggests just how fragile the economy remains. A stronger dollar and weakness in China are likely taking a toll. We keep waiting for liftoff, but it never seems to come. We continue to dog paddle along.

Vatican Clarifies Pope's Meeting with Kim Davis: "Should Not Be Considered Support"

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 9:58 AM EDT

On Friday, the Vatican sought to provide a few more details concerning Pope Francis' meeting last week with Kim Davis, the defiant Kentucky clerk who was jailed for her refusal to issue gay marriage licenses in Rowan County.

"The pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects," official Vatican spokesman the Reverand Federico Lombardi said in a statement.

The clarification follows a wave of controversy this week after Kim Davis revealed she had a private meeting with the pope during his historic visit to Washington, and claimed Francis gave her and her husband rosaries and told her to "stay strong."

"Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we're doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything," Davis said in an interview with ABC.

Days of speculation followed over whether the meeting in fact occurred, and if so, whether it put into question how truly progressive some believed the pope was. Some on social media professed to be shocked that the leader of the Catholic Church might endorse the politics of Davis and not support same-sex marriage, despite the church's clear stance opposing the issue. 

Eventually the Vatican confirmed the encounter, but with scant detail. Friday's statement appeared to downplay the importance of their meeting.

"Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City," Lombardi said.

This Chart Shows How the "Unequal States of America" Compares to the World

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

A new report finds that the state of economic inequality in the United States is far more drastic than in other developed countries. The report, published by the German financial services company Allianz, even dubs us the "Unequal States of America."

The company's latest Global Wealth Report calculates 55 countries' Gini coefficient, a measure of the distribution of wealth in which zero means total equality and 100 means total inequality. The average for all developed countries is 65. The United States' score is nearly 81.

Allianz/Global Wealth Report 2015

Michael Heise, the chief economist at Allianz, described the situation in the United States as "worrying." "Our calculations indicate that developments have not been quite as dramatic in the other countries," he said. "As usual, the US represents more the exception than the rule among market economies." The report's authors note the country's lackluster recovery from the financial crisis has "caused a dramatic deterioration in wealth distribution." While the United States amassed nearly 42 percent of the world's private wealth in 2014 ($63.5 trillion), the top 10 percent of Americans control more than two-thirds of the country's net wealth.

The United States leads the pack, but it's not alone. Much of the world's developed nations saw "exceptionally large gaps" in the wealth gulf between the rich and the poor during since 2000, according to the report. Over the past decade and a half, it found, the number of countries that closed their wealth gaps was roughly the same as the number that grew more unequal.

Here's Why I Doubt That Hillary Clinton Used a Private Email Server to Evade FOIA Requests

| Thu Oct. 1, 2015 9:49 PM EDT

Thanks to the endless release of her emails, we've learned something about Hillary Clinton that hasn't gotten much attention: As near as I can tell, she's sort of a technology idiot. She asked her aides for information that she could have Googled in less time than it took to ask. She needed help figuring out how to use an iPad. She didn't know her own office phone number. She used a BlackBerry. She had trouble operating a fax machine. She was unclear about needing a WiFi connection to access the internet.

In other words, when Fox News reporter Ed Henry asked whether Clinton's email server had been wiped, and she answered, "What, like with a cloth or something?"—well, that might not have been the sarcastic response we all thought it was. She might truly have had no idea what he meant.

As for setting up a private server with just a single account in order to evade FOIA requests, it looks as though she's genuinely not tech savvy enough to have cooked up something like that. She probably really did just think it sounded convenient, and nobody stepped in to disabuse her of this notion.

So what was the deal with FOIA? I don't know, and I suspect we'll never know. But I'll say this: there were obviously people at State who knew that Hillary used a private server for email. The folks who respond to FOIA requests are responsible for figuring out where documents might be, and in this case it was just a matter of asking. Apparently they didn't, which is hardly Hillary's fault. The alternative is that they did ask, and Hillary's staff flat-out lied to them and said that she never used email. You can decide for yourself which sounds more plausible.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, I decided to do some Googling myself to check a few things. And it turns out that I'm not, in fact, the first to notice Hillary's technology foibles. Just a few weeks ago, Seth Meyers did a whole late-night bit about this.