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All That's Left Are Fights Over Trivia

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 11:25 AM EDT

Here's the latest political news:

Political Battle Over Export Bank Heats Up

Lawmakers at a recent House hearing on the future of the Export-Import Bank were given an extra piece of reading material: a personalized index card laying out exactly which companies in their districts benefit from the financing agency and how many people they employ.

The cards, which supporters of the bank plan to give to every member of Congress in coming weeks, are part of a lobbying push by corporations such as Boeing Co. and General Electric Co., and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers. Their goal is to combat the most serious threat yet to the survival of the agency, which is under assault by new House leadership and conservative groups that say it amounts to corporate welfare.

What does this say about us?  As near as I can tell, this is the most important domestic political battle in the country right now. That's right: reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. Can you think of anything more trivial? This is a government agency that costs taxpayers nothing—in fact, it's recorded a profit over the past decade—and, at worst, will cost us no more than a tiny amount in the future. On the flip side, although reliable figures are hard to come by, its impact on our export business is probably pretty minuscule.

So it costs nothing and has a tiny impact on the economy. And that's what we're fighting over this month. Why? Because there's not much point in fighting over anything that's actually important. Welcome to America in 2014.

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Corb Lund's Sizzling, Glorious "Counterfeit Blues"

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 11:12 AM EDT

Corb Lund
Counterfeit Blues
New West

When Canadian country rocker Corb Lund and his longtime backing trio, the Hurtin' Albertans, entered legendary Sun Studio (launching pad for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, et al.) in Memphis for two days of sessions, the result was this crackerjack album. Cut live in gloriously warm mono, Counterfeit Blues features new versions of previously recorded songs Lund and company had performed on stage for years, and it shows—in the best possible way. The band is loose and energetic, but tight as can be, while Lund's spirited vocals are playful and commanding at once. This sizzling brew of honky-tonk, rockabilly, and boogie recalls the '80s glory days of Nashville upstarts Jason and the Scorchers, and that's an impressive achievement indeed.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 7, 2014

Mon Jul. 7, 2014 9:24 AM EDT

US Marines celebrate a change of command ceremony in South Carolina under the American flag. (US Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Sarah Cherry)

The NSA Said Edward Snowden Had No Access to Surveillance Intercepts. They Lied.

| Sun Jul. 6, 2014 12:45 AM EDT

For more than a year, NSA officials have insisted that although Edward Snowden had access to reports about NSA surveillance, he didn't have access to the actual surveillance intercepts themselves. It turns out they were lying.1 In fact, he provided the Washington Post with a cache of 22,000 intercept reports containing 160,000 individual intercepts. The Post has spent months reviewing these files and estimates that 11 percent of the intercepted accounts belonged to NSA targets and the remaining 89 percent were "incidental" collections from bystanders.

So was all of this worth it? The Post's review illustrates just how hard it is to make that judgment:

Among the most valuable contents—which The Post will not describe in detail, to avoid interfering with ongoing operations—are fresh revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project, double-dealing by an ostensible ally, a military calamity that befell an unfriendly power, and the identities of aggressive intruders into U.S. computer networks.

Months of tracking communications across more than 50 alias accounts, the files show, led directly to the 2011 capture in Abbottabad of Muhammad Tahir Shahzad, a Pakistan-based bomb builder, and Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali. At the request of CIA officials, The Post is withholding other examples that officials said would compromise ongoing operations.

Many other files, described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained, have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless.

…If Snowden's sample is representative, the population under scrutiny in the PRISM and Upstream programs is far larger than the government has suggested. In a June 26 "transparency report,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence disclosed that 89,138 people were targets of last year's collection under FISA Section 702. At the 9-to-1 ratio of incidental collection in Snowden's sample, the office's figure would correspond to nearly 900,000 accounts, targeted or not, under surveillance.

The whole story is worth a read in order to get a more detailed description of what these intercepts looked like and who they ended up targeting. In some ways, the Snowden intercepts show that the NSA is fairly fastidious about minimizing data on US persons. In other ways, however, the NSA plainly stretches to the limit—and probably beyond—the rules for defining who is and isn't a US person. Click the link for more.

1Naturally, the NSA has an explanation:

Robert S. Litt, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a prepared statement that Alexander and other officials were speaking only about "raw" intelligence, the term for intercepted content that has not yet been evaluated, stamped with classification markings or minimized to mask U.S. identities.

"We have talked about the very strict controls on raw traffic…" Litt said. "Nothing that you have given us indicates that Snowden was able to circumvent that in any way.”

Silly intelligence committee members. They should have specifically asked about access to processed content.

Jesus. If someone in Congress isn't seriously pissed off about this obvious evasion, they might as well just hang up their oversight spurs and disband.

Here's What Happens When You Challenge the CIA Through "Proper Channels"

| Sat Jul. 5, 2014 12:14 PM EDT

One of the standard criticisms of Edward Snowden is that he should have tried harder to air his concerns via proper channels. This is fairly laughable on its face, since even now the NSA insists that all its programs were legal and it continues to fight efforts to change them or release any information about them. Still, maybe Snowden should have tried. What harm could it have done?

Today, Greg Miller of the Washington Post tells us the story of Jeffrey Scudder, who worked in the CIA’s Historical Collections Division. This is a division explicitly set up to look for old documents that can be safely released to the public. Scudder discovered thousands of documents he thought should be released, and he worked diligently through channels to make this happen. When that ran into repeated roadblocks, he eventually decided to try to force the CIA's hand—legally, openly—by filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act:

Scudder’s FOIA submissions fell into two categories: one seeking new digital copies of articles already designated for release and another aimed at articles yet to be cleared. He made spreadsheets that listed the titles of all 1,987 articles he wanted, he said, then had them scanned for classified content and got permission to take them home so he could assemble his FOIA request on personal time.

....Six months after submitting his request, Scudder was summoned to a meeting with Counterintelligence Center investigators and asked to surrender his personal computer. He was placed on administrative leave, instructed not to travel overseas and questioned by the FBI.

....On Nov. 27, 2012, a stream of black cars pulled up in front of Scudder’s home in Ashburn, Va., at 6 a.m. FBI agents seized every computer in the house, including a laptop his daughter had brought home from college for Thanksgiving. They took cellphones, storage devices, DVDs, a Nintendo Game Boy and a journal kept by his wife, a physical therapist in the Loudoun County Schools.

The search lasted nearly four hours, Scudder said. FBI agents followed his wife and daughters into their bedrooms as they got dressed, asking probing questions. “It was classic elicitation,” Scudder said. “How has Jeff been? Have you noticed any unexplained income? Cash? Mood changes?”

....Last summer, the board recommended that Scudder be fired. Around the same time, he was shown a spreadsheet outlining his possible pension packages with two figures — one large and one small — underlined. He agreed to retire.

So, um, yeah. Snowden should have tried harder to work through proper channels. What harm could it have done?

At this point, of course, I have to add the usual caveat that we have only Scudder's side of this story. The CIA naturally declines to comment. This means it's possible that Scudder really did do something wrong, but spun a self-serving version of his story for Miller's benefit. We'll never know for sure. Nonetheless, I think it's safe to say that this isn't exactly a testimonial for aggressively trying to work through the proper channels, even if your goal is the relatively harmless one of releasing historical documents that pose no threats to operational security at all. By comparison, it's pretty obvious that having his pension reduced would have been the least of Snowden's worries.

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

I think it's time to stop pretending there's going to be anything to blog about this morning, and just get straight to catblogging. I was hoping for something patriotically themed, but that was a no-go. Domino is just not a dress-up kind of cat. So then I thought I'd get her to lounge in front of all the various goodies for tonight's picnic. She wasn't having any of that either. The best I could do was this tableau, which lasted about a second or two before Domino scampered away as if the Peeps were going to leap up and attack her. It's just hard to get her in the proper spirit.

For the rest of you, though, have a lovely 238th birthday party.

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The Surly Bonds of Earth

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 9:44 AM EDT

This is hardly the biggest problem American Apparel has right now, but:

American Apparel issued a public apology Thursday after the company posted a stylized picture to its Tumblr page of the space shuttle Challenger disaster thinking it was fireworks.

The company was immediately hammered with negative feedback.

In its apology, the company said it was an honest mistake by the social media manager, who was born after the 1986 explosion that killed all seven crew members, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

In related news, I would like to apologize on behalf of my entire generation for using that picture of a dirigible on fire earlier this week. I thought it was a still from the latest Transformers movie.

WATCH: Now That Corporations Have Freedom of Religion, It's Time to Lay Out the Corporate Commandments [Fiore Cartoon]

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

British Brewer Still Bitter Over American Revolution

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 7:40 PM EDT

British actor and writer Stephen Merchant, who you can thank in-part for creating the original version of The Office, has a challenge for you this 4th of July: imagine if his people had won the war for independence. He's tired of acting like he's not bloody pissed that each year we celebrate beating his little country. He's so pissed in fact that he's made the following ad for Newcastle Brown Ale. Watch his plea, as he begs of you to image how "great" Great Brtiain 2 would be. And then, enjoy a hoedown, just to spite him:

"Jaws" Is Ridiculous, Say Kids Who Owe Everything to "Jaws"

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 7:29 PM EDT

Happy Fourth of July! Thirty-nine years ago, Jaws became the first summer blockbuster. In it the town of Amity Island is terrorized by a killer great white shark around July Fourth weekend. In honor of that, we decided to publish a chat we just had about it. This chat has been edited for clarity.

Emily Dreyfuss: I saw Jaws last night in a movie theater.

Ben Dreyfuss: Why?

ED: Because it was playing right by our house and we needed to be somewhere air conditioned.

BD: Okay.

ED:  Two things: 1) You and dad are exactly alike and 2) I forgot that "we're going to need a bigger boat" wasn't his line, which makes me even angrier when people quote that in regard to him.

BD:  LOL, everyone thinks dad said that. He and I have this joke about Roy Scheider being pissed off about it for 25 years.

ED: I would be too! I hadn't seen Jaws since we saw it as a family 20 years ago.

BD: I watched it with mom last year. She was like, "I love Jaws. My favorite part is when dad kills the shark," and I was like, "Uh, he doesn't," and she was all, "Shut up, Ben. I was married to him for 10 years. He killed Jaws." So we watched it and then she was like, "Huh, I could have sworn he killed Jaws. I've been telling people that my ex-husband killed Jaws." "Well, I guess people think you were married to Roy Scheider." "I guess so."

ED: I mean, the way I read it last night, dad kind of fucked up and was semi-responsible for Quint's death. He dropped the dagger, then swam away and hid, and then the shark ate the captain and Roy Scheider was a hero.

BD: Yeah, I mean, he had the pole knocked out of his hand. Then he swims away and hides. He had just gone down in the cage which was a pretty brave thing to do. By the time he hides he had no chance of killing Jaws. Like, either let yourself be eaten or swim and hide. Scheider was objectively the hero though.

ED: Yeah, I mean, dad had no other options, but I just forgot that he wasn't the hero.

BD: Look, look, we love dad.

ED: Yes, to be clear, dad is the best.

BD: No one here is saying otherwise.

ED: I also forgot that his character was the rich kid! I guess I basically forgot everything.

BD: Oh yeah, with his tony, rich boat that they should have taken to avoid the whole death/sinking thing?

ED: I mean, they don't even address that, which is ridiculous. Like, his boat had all the things they needed! Like sonar.

BD: Right? And Quint demands that they take his rickety piece of shit which is just an insane thing to do. The only reasonable thing to say to Quint when he makes that demand is, "Sir, you are insane. We are not putting our lives in the hands of an insane person. You're fired. Good day."

ED: "Also, we should add, you can't catch a shark this big with a fishing pole. It had to be said."

BD: HAHAHAHAHA.

ED: Like, his big plan is that he is going to REEL it in with his human man arms.

BD: I was under the impression that he was using some sort of contraption to leverage the weight of the boat or something? But that might not be how science works.

ED: I don't think so. I think he was using the power of a metal cup to help hold the fishing rod and that is that and then it shows him reeling in and letting out and then being like, "This shark is so smart! I can't pull him in!"

BD: "He's either very very smart or very very dumb."

ED: LOL, yes. That's the line. Then he hands the rod—with the shark on the line!—to Scheider who knows nothing about fishing and isn't even strapped in!

BD: Then at the end he tries to tow him back to shore.

ED: Yeah and that works out well.

BD: Also, the entire notion of the shark following them out to sea seems suspect. Why would Jaws follow their dumb boat? It's just one boat.

ED:  Because of the dead fish and blood trail.

BD: That little bit of dead fish that Scheider throws in there though, it's not much! Like it's just a bit of blood. Jaws can eat that much fish whenever he wants.

ED: Oh oh oh, another thing that makes no sense is when dad and Roy find the boat with the dead fisherman at night and in the scariest moment of the film the dead body pops out and freaks dad out? WHY WOULD THE SHARK KILL THE FISHERMAN AND NOT EAT HIM? He is not a murderer. He's a "maneater!" He would have eaten that body!

BD: Jaws: Actually a story of a shark out for revenge against Ben Gardner. All the other attacks are just to cover up his crime.

ED: HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHA.

BD: I mean, maybe Jaws didn't kill Ben Gardner. Maybe someone else did. Maybe they got away with it.

ED: Wow, you remembered that character's name. I am kind of blown away.

BD: "That's Ben Gardner's boat."

ED: Yeah, that is the line but like, what are you? A savant? I barely remember dad's character's name. I'm confused if it's hooper or hopper.

BD: Emily, I know all the lines to almost all of dad's movies. I watched them all dozens of times when I was young…It's Hooper.

ED: Where was I? I watched Always a lot…and cried.

BD: Yeah, Always is sad. I love the bit of that movie when Holly Hunter comes down in the dress dad bought her and that song "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" plays. That song makes me cry.

ED: That is a very good moment. Ok, but so, we can agree, Jaws makes no sense.

BD: Yeah. Great film.

ED: Wonderful film.

BD: Makes no sense.

ED: Makes little sense.

BD: It could make more sense.

ED: It could make more sense!

The end.