Mojo - April 2009

Chris Dodd's Big Money Funders

| Fri Apr. 17, 2009 9:20 AM EDT

You may have seen a Connecticut Post report floating around the Internet this morning that looks at Sen. Chris Dodd's fundraising report from the first quarter of 2009 and finds that there are only five citizens from Connecticut who donated. Those five plucky Nutmeg Staters gave a total of $4,250. Dodd has a 33 percent popularity rating and is losing in hypothetical match-ups to basically every Republican pollsters can find. The citizens of CT clearly don't want him around. So how did Dodd raise $1,048,674 in just three months?

As Daniel Schulman and I report in our story today, it mostly came from Big Finance. Here's the breakdown. Executives and PACs representing banks, financial services companies, and real estate brokerages gave Dodd at least $299,000. (NB: That means the folks that Dodd, chairman of the Banking committee, is supposed to oversee gave 70 times more than the folks Dodd is supposed to represent.) Insurers and health care interests gave $48,000. And lobbyists, many of whom have Wall Street clients, chipped in $62,800 more.

So there you have it. It's no wonder the folks that Dodd represents aren't terribly excited about having him back. It's not clear who he represents anymore.

Update: Keep in mind, there is a way to eliminate this whole money-in-politics game....

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New Memos: How Bush's Justice Dept. Approved Torture with Waterboards and Bugs

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 4:06 PM EDT

Bugs? The CIA tried to use bugs to get a suspected terrorist to spill secrets?

That's one piece of information contained in four once-secret memos written by Bush Justice Department officials to justify the use of coercive techniques--aka torture. The previously undisclosed memos, released on Thursday, were each produced by the Office of Legal Counsel in response to requests from the CIA for legal guidance. They outline specific procedures the CIA wanted to use on detainees--including waterboarding. Referring to these documents, Attorney General Eric Holder said, "The President has halted the use of the interrogation techniques described in these opinions, and this administration has made clear from day one that it will not condone torture. We are disclosing these memos consistent with our commitment to the rule of law."

In the first of the four memos--this one dated August 1, 2002--the OLC okays a CIA request to use 10 procedures during the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a captured al Qaeda leader whom the agency believed was withholding information about plans for attacks within the United States. The tactics included "facial slap (insult slap)," sleep deprivation, confinement in a small space, and waterboarding. Also on the list: putting insects in the "confinement box" with Zubaydah.

The OLC approved all of this, noting that none of the procedures would cause "severe physical or mental pain or suffering." As for the insect treatment, the CIA had informed OLC that its interrogators intended to tell Zubaydah they were confining him in a small space with a stinging insect but would actually "place a harmless insect in the box," such as a caterpillar. The memo notes the CIA had informed OLC that Zubaydah "appears to have a fear of insects." Curiously, in the section of the memo describing these 10 techniques, only the part on the insect scheme contains a sentence (or two) redacted.

The OLC did have a warning for the bug-wielders of the CIA. If the CIA interrogators were to place "harmless" insects inside a confinement box containing Zubaydah and were to tell him about it, the OLC said, they would also have to inform Zubaydah that the bugs "will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain." And if they were not going to tell him about the bugs, the OLC said, then the CIA interrogators could not lead him to believe that there might be bugs present that could cause severe pain or death. Got it?

As for waterboarding, the OLC said, full-speed ahead, even though it noted that the procedure caused the perception of "suffocation and incipient panic." The memo--signed by Jay Bybee, then the assistant attorney general--pointed out that the OLC had previously concluded that "severe pain" is "pain that is difficult for the individual to endure and is of an intensity akin to pain accompanying serious physical injury." But the OLC maintained in this memo that the experience of being waterboarded was not covered by this definition. Waterboarding, the memo concluded, "inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever." The memo continued: "The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering."

The memo did note that "the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death." But the OLC asserted that for this threat to be equated with "severe mental pain or suffering" it must be "prolonged"--meaning "lasting months or years." In other words, a physical act producing that was like suffocation that could be perceived as a "threat of imminent death" would not constitute "torture."

The OLC also informed the CIA that for any of its interrogators to be open to a torture charge, he or she would have to had "the specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering." And, in OLC's view, the objective of the interrogators using waterboarding and these other techniques was not to cause pain; it was to obtain information. Thus, they were free to proceed. But the memo ends on a less-than-solid note. "We wish to emphasize," the memo said, "that this is our best reading of the law; however, you should be aware that there are no cases construing [the anti-torture] statue; just as there have been no prosecutions brought under it." That is, go ahead but don't blame us if someone later on raises a fuss--about waterboards or bugs.

UPDATE: A May 10, 2005, OLC memo noted in a footnote: "We understand that--for reasons unrelated to any concerns that it might violate the [anti-torture] statute--the CIA never used that [insects] technique and has removed it from the list of authorized interrogation techniques." The memo did not explain why the CIA dropped the bugs.

For a collection of Mother Jones articles on torture, click here.

Is "ObamaRail" Coming to Your State?

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

President Obama and Vice President Biden unveiled their plans for nationwide high-speed rail today, explaining how they will spend the $13 billion earmarked in the stimulus and the President's budget for the construction of super sweet new trains. (Lots and lots of details for train geeks here.) Obama had this to say on the occasion:

What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America.  Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city.  No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes.  (Laughter.)  Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.  Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future.  It is now.  It is happening right now.  It's been happening for decades.  The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here. 

In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations.  In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined.  China, where service began just two years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just five years from now.  And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next:  a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour.  So it's being done; it's just not being done here.

Consider me on board. Get it? Anyway, my favorite part of the whole rollout is this cool little map, which tells you exactly where these 100 mph trains are going to take you when they are completed in 2020 or whenever.

Hope you don't live in the Great Plains! No trains for you!

The Case of the Denied NSA Wiretap: The System Worked?

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 10:15 AM EDT

Maybe the system worked.

On Thursday, The New York Times broke the news that the National Security Agency went too far in spying on the emails and phone calls of Americans in recent months. The piece did not make clear what this entailed, and it quoted one official claiming the "overcollection" was an accident. (Blame the computers!) But the piece contained an interesting nugget that caught the eye of Kevin Drum:

And in one previously undisclosed episode, the N.S.A. tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant, an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said.
The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact — as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 — with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations, the official said.
The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some intelligence officials about using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Kevin notes that this is a big deal and should have set off "alarm bells at every possible level at NSA." But perhaps there is another way of looking at the episode. It could well have been that some overeager NSA snoops were keen to eavesdrop on a member of Congress because they believed that could produce intelligence on an extremist target. They made the case for doing so without getting a warrant. They failed to win permission to do so. Superiors told them, no warrant, no wiretap--at least when it comes to a member of Congress. No harm, no foul?

Call me jaundiced, but this does not strike me as a cause for much worry. The intelligence agencies contain operatives who do at times do look to push the envelope, to skirt restrictions or, in some cases, dodge the law. In this instance, hot-to-eavesdrop NSA employees made a case for using a warrantless wiretap to listen in on a lawmaker. Maybe they had good reason to be interested in his/her conversations, maybe not. But they didn't go ahead and intercept on their own. They sought the authority to spy on the legislator and were ultimately turned down. Perhaps alarm bells did sound. But whether or not there was any ringing, the appropriate decision appears to have been made. This is a far cry from most intelligence scandals--when the abuse actually occurs. It could be seen as an indication that all the protests about the NSA's warantless wiretapping--the blogging, the op-eds, the lawsuits--has increased sensitivity within the intelligence community. Yes, it might be a sign of progress.

Obama Shuts Down DOD Propaganda Office

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 8:45 AM EDT

The New York Times announces the shuttering:

A Pentagon office responsible for coordinating Defense Department information campaigns overseas has been abolished...

Military and civilian critics said the office, the Defense Department office for support to public diplomacy, overstepped its mandate during the final years of the Bush administration by trying to organize information operations that violated Pentagon guidelines for accuracy and transparency.

I'm guessing we won't be planting stories in the Iraqi media while simultaneously claiming we're fostering a free press, either.

GOP 2.0?

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 2:46 PM EDT

My article from the next issue of the magazine -- examining the GOP's attempt to bring its use of social networking and other web tools into the 21st century -- has hit the Internets. The piece suffers somewhat from the fact that it was written before Michael Steele's well-publicized series of gaffes and stumbles, but I think it still makes some key points.

Takeaways:

(1) There is a strong internal contingent in the modern conservative movement that realizes the GOP is way, way behind Obama and the Democrats in terms of using technology to organize, fundraise, message, etc. That contingent wanted a guy named Saul Anuzis to become GOP chair because Anuzis is an early adopter of Twittering and other geek tools. When Steele won the job, he made a smart move in bringing Anuzis on-board; it has become clear that Steele, for all his problems, understands the GOP's tech deficit and wants to take radical steps to address it.

(2) Even the folks that are tackling this problem on behalf of the conservative movement haven't seen a lot of success. In fact, their online organization of this tea party thing is probably their most impressive accomplishment to date, and it remains to be seen if they can carry that enthusiam forward after Tax Day. A look at what they've done before, from my piece:

Consider R-igg.com, a conservative foil to the wildly popular user-generated social media site Digg.com. Many conservatives feel that Digg users lean left; the idea behind R-igg, explains its 20-year-old creator, Aaron Marks, "was to create an alternative so that people on the right could share their stories in the same way." R-igg has an attractive layout, but it receives only a couple thousand visitors a month, tops.

R-igg's failure of emulation is not unique. TheVanguard was supposed to be the Republican MoveOn. QubeTV, Eyeblast, and YouSeeIt are conservative alternatives to YouTube. And Let's Get This Right is the Republican doppelgänger of MySpace. With the exception of Slatecard, an online fundraising site that is the right-wing version of liberal ActBlue, none has seen much success.

It's not a sterling track record. But they know it, and they're working like the Dickens to improve. So nobody get lazy around here.

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MN Public Opinion Shifts Against Norm

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 2:18 PM EDT

Now that a nonpartisan court has officially ruled that Al Franken is the winner of the contested Minnesotan Senate race, wide swaths of Minnesotans believe Norm Coleman should forego further appeals and concede. Public Policy Polling (pdf):

4/14-15/09; 805 registered voters, 3.5% margin of error

Do you think Norm Coleman should appeal the decision and continue to fight in court or should Coleman concede the race?

37% Appeal
63% Concede

If this man wants to run for governor someday, and there are rumors that he does, he needs to get out before he tarnishes his public image forever.

Glenn Beck Advocates Secession

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 9:42 AM EDT

I suppose we knew it would come to this eventually. Glenn Beck is the tip of the spear for the conservative talkers and activists who are convinced that America is descending into tyranny under Obama. (I like Jon Stewart's line: that's not tyranny; that's just being in the minority.) The Fox News host is (1) often the first major media figure to adopt the crazy right-wing conspiracy theories that circulate on the web, thus pulling them into the mainstream; and (2) takes right-wing talking points the furthest, like when he suggested that Obama is turning America into a Nazi state. The tag line on his Fox News show ought to be: "First Among Nut Jobs: the Glenn Beck Program!"

So it was inevitable that Beck would be the first to suggest that if you oppose Obama enough, you have the right to secede. Here's Beck (audio at the link):

"You can't convince me that the Founding Fathers wouldn't allow you to secede. The Constitution is not a suicide pact. If [a] state says, "I don't want to go there because that's suicide," they have a right to back out! ...I sign into this union, and I can never, ever get out?? No matter what the government does, I can never get out??"

Here's my prediction -- in 12-18 months, conservatives will learn how to be out of power again and we'll see a lot less of the tea parties and Glenn Beck-type ranting. But I gotta wonder: Why didn't conservatives get this worked up when their party controlled the White House and they could actually pressure the president to do what they wanted? The activist/blogosphere left knows how to harness its grassroots energy when it actually matters. It doesn't complain about its politicians, the way conservative activists complain(ed) so bitterly about Bush. It works hard to get its politicians to do what it wants.

Update: Looks like Beck did this once before, in 2008.

Somali Pirates: Another Thing To Thank George W. Bush For?

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 12:51 AM EDT

Now that Somalia's finally gotten our attention, it's worth rereading a piece David Case filed for MoJo in late 2007, after (unlike most of the people who now claim expertise on the subject) actually spending time in the region. At the time, Case was one of the few reporters noting the US role in supporting the Ethiopian invasion, which helped turn a failed state into a full-on war zone:

Somalia may barely register with the American media, but the [post-invasion] bloodshed is a major story on Al Jazeera. Across the Middle East, Somalia is viewed as another hostile front in Bush's war against Islam, says Colin Thomas-Jensen of the Washington-based Enough Project. "In the minds of Muslims, this is the third time the U.S. has supported the toppling of an Islamic government with no political plan for the aftermath, leaving behind chaos."

In other words: Pirates are the least of our problems. Read the whole thing.

 

 

Debating the Bush Six Case on "Hardball"

| Tue Apr. 14, 2009 8:20 PM EDT

I was on Hardball again with uber-hawk Frank Gaffney Jr., a onetime Reagan Pentagon official. The subject tonight: the possible prosecution in Spain of six past Bush officials--including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith, former Justice Department official John Yoo, and David Addington, onetime counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney--for devising the legal justification for torture conducted at Guantanamo. Gaffney, of course, decried the Spanish action as an attack on US sovereignty. If I heard him right, he essentially argued that the United States need not abide by any international rules (or treaties) if they lead to any undue infringement of national sovereignty. And who gets to judge what makes for such an infringement? I think Gaffney would like that job.