On Monday, as bruising battles over health care, financial regulation, and climate change dominate the news cycle, the Obama administration's ambitious—yet often troubling—public education agenda made a rare A1 appearance in the New York Times. The story concerned the Department of Education's "Race to the Top Fund," a multi-billion-dollar initiative that doles out stimulus funds to encourage innovation, boost student and teacher performance, and close acheivement gaps among different student populations. At first glance, the initiative—usually a second-fiddle subject to sexier topics—seems a laudable, sorely needed program.

Yet just how the Education Department and its secretary, long-time Obama buddy Arne Duncan, plan to use those billions raises some serious questions about their vision for U.S. public schools. Indeed, the Obama administration's education-related announcements to date, which emphasize test-focused and charter-heavy reforms, is painfully reminiscent of the Bush administration's top-down, data-driven approach to education reform. It is exactly what a good many educators and administrators did not want to see from Duncan and Co.

Robert Novak has died at the age of 78, after battling brain cancer for the past year. There are plenty of remembrances of the legendary conservative columnist popping up (see here, here, and here), but Think Progress has unearthed a priceless quote from Novak discussing his vision of the hereafter in 2007: “I’m going to a place where there are no blogs.”

In the fight against terrorism, some of the most indispensable weapons are the most ordinary of objects: A scrap of paper with a name scrawled on it, found in the pocket of a suspected insurgent; or his cellphone, programmed with numbers. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Special Operations forces have stepped up efforts to collect anything that might broaden its understanding of insurgent and terrorist networks—so-called pocket litter, documents, and computer hard drives. But according to a report from a House commiteee, they lack the capability to actually do anything with the material they gather.

This troubling observation is buried deep in the House Appropriations committee's 476-page report on the FY2010 defense budget, which notes that Special Operations personnel have, on multiple occasions, informed lawmakers that they need better technology to quickly process intelligence finds in Iraq and Afghanistan and share the resulting information with relevant agencies. "The Committee is concerned about the urgent need for the modernization of Special Operations Forces' (SOF) capabilities to process, exploit, and disseminate critical operational intelligence from deployed locations overseas," the report says. "[W]ithout specialized expeditionary processing, this information becomes inacessible and of no value to SOF in immediate urgent operational missions, and over the longer term to the war fighter, the intelligence community and others in need of access."

To address this shortcoming, the appropriations committee added an extra $14 billion to help Special Operations Forces analyze and share the intelligence it collects before it becomes useless. I've called the committee for details, and will post an update if I learn more.

h/t: Secrecy News.


AL ASAD, Iraq (Aug. 6, 2009) Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus addresses Sailors and Marines during a tour of Al Asad Air Base. Mabus thanked them for their dedicated service and their significant role in preserving security and stability in the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O'Brien/Released.)

Some essential reading you may have missed:

The public option is dead. Who cares?

Obama delivers tough words on defense spending to an audience of veterans.

The DOJ belatedly softens its harsh stance against gay marriage.

Both David Corn and Newt Gingrich think Obama could learn a thing or two from Ronald Reagan. Although for somewhat different reasons.

North Korea reopens border with South Korea.

At least someone's paying attention: the Times-Herald of California's Solano and Napa Counties condemns Obama's use of signing statements.

More details emerge on the American Petroleum Institute's anti-cap and trade astroturf ops.

MoJo = contraband? Virgina prisons bans our issue on the failure of the drug war.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is on twitter, and so are my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann, and our editor, Clara Jeffery. You can follow me here. (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Sometime in the next ten days, President Obama can expect a call from Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula wants to invite Obama to a meeting of the Union of the South American Nations (Unasur) meeting to discuss the increasing American presence in Colombia, now that the South American country has allowed US military forces to use Colombian air bases to track down rebels and drug dealers. A conversation about the topic should take place before the next Unsaur meeting, scheduled for August 28th in Bariloche, Argentina.

During the last meeting of Unasur leaders, last week, in Quito, Ecuador, the Brazilian president said he was “uneasy” with American troops going to Colombia and proposed the meeting with Obama. The main reason for his concern, he said, is that South America should be able to solve its own problems without outside help, especially since the Narcotraffic Combat Council was just created by Unasur to fight drug traffic in South America without international interference. “The Council can answer many things that Colombians think only Americans can answer,” Lula said.

But during a press conference, Lula expressed a concern that must cross the mind of every leader whose neighbors are about to host American troops: Are they really going to stay where they’re supposed to? Lula emphasized that it should be made “explicit” that American troops will act only within Colombian territory. Translation: Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and Obama can sign whatever they want, as long as we don’t have American soldiers crossing into the Brazilian Amazon.

Guest contributor Gabriela Lessa is a journalist and blogger spending the summer in her native Brazil. Watch for her dispatches on motherjones.com.

What's the riskier political move for Obama: pushing for an ambitious health care overhaul, even if this entails a drawn out process that shifts his attention from other pressing issues (i.e., the economy, climate change)? Or trying to get a bill—any bill—passed quickly?

Former Clinton advisor William Galston has suggested the president's best bet is the latter. In a blog item on Friday, he encouraged Obama to take “what he can get on health care” so he can “focus more on the economy over the next three years, and persuade average Americans that the economy is as central to his concerns as is it to theirs.” There may be political consequences if he doesn't, Galston warned:

A jobless recovery helped undermine George H. W. Bush's reelection prospects in 1992. Its continuation weakened support for Bill Clinton's economic program and contributed to the Democratic Party's rout in 1994.

You could say we have a loyal following behind bars. A captive audience, yes, but also one on the hunt for investigative stories of justice and fairness, and the pursuit of as much. Also, we pay close attention to what happens in prisons; we've covered the prison industrial complex quite extensively. But we're not publishing secret jailbreak cypher code or anything, promise. Which apparently we need to say out loud:

Last year when we released our package on the coming prison meltdown we got a letter from a reader at the Pickaway Correctional Center in Ohio saying the issue was being withheld. Specifically, the prison cited our written examples of prison slang with explanation” but, strangely enough, neither our list of banned books, nor our tips for an easier prison stay.

Then, today, we get this letter saying that the Virginia Department of Corrections is prohibiting our current issue, on the failures of the drug war, from making it to prisoners because of our coverage of the drug war in Mexico. The story they cite is a really amazing tale of one reporter who braves the police and the cartels to tell the truth about Mexico's violence, guns, and drugs; but there aren't any tips on how to get out of jail therein. The pages the DOC letter references also include this illuminating map of drug cartel hotspots in the United States. Virginia does have a few of the 259 locales, but will inmates really be able to glean enough intel that the magazine "could be detrimental to the security and good order of the institution and rehabilitation of offenders"?


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a growing trend among Washington's leading influence peddlers as they make the adjustment to the more ethics-conscious Obama era: they're avoiding the taint of lobbying (not to mention the disclosure requirements) by calling themselves strategists instead of lobbyists. One such operator is Tom Daschle, who works at lobbying firm Alston & Bird as a "special policy adviser." At the time, I noted that an additional perk of side-stepping the lobbyist moniker was that media outlets like Newsweek still seek out Daschle's insight on health care without mentioning that he has clients with a stake in the legislative battle.

But Daschle's previous media mentions are nothing compared to his appearance on Meet the Press this weekend, as Michael Scherer of Time points out. On one side was fierce, uncompromising reform foe Sen. Tom Coburn, who has said that Obama's plan would "endanger the U.S. economy, but millions of patients as well." And on the other side ...a hired gun for insurance behemoth UnitedHealth, which, as BusinessWeek has discovered, is leading the charge to defeat the public option, the centerpiece of liberal goals for reform:  

Daschle personally advocates a government-run competitor to private insurers. But he sells his expertise to UnitedHealth, which opposes any such public insurance plan. Among the services Daschle offers are tips on the personalities and policy proclivities of members of Congress he has known for decades... He says he leaves direct contacts with members of Congress to others at his firm.   

Meet the Press didn't mention Daschle's relationship with UnitedHealth at all. This was really the best advocate for reform that the show could come up with?

President Barack Obama spoke before a decidedly not hand-picked audience of around 6,000 people in the heart of red-state Arizona today and no one shouted the epithets "Communist!" or "Liar!"

How refreshing.

Granted, this was the national convention of Veterans of Foreign wars, and booing your Commander-in-Chief is generally considered "conduct unbecoming," even if you haven't worn the uniform for a few decades.

Still, I think New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg goes a bit far in her frosty characterization of today's event.

As a commander-in-chief who has never served in the Armed Forces, Mr. Obama is still working to establish his bona fides with the military. His predecessor, George W. Bush, typically received wildly enthusiastic receptions from military audiences; Mr. Obama received a more tepid welcome here, with his speech interrupted only occasionally by polite applause.

First of all, at informal military gatherings Obama has been greeted enthusiastically. But this is the VFW convention and that's a different venue. I took a quick look at the video of W.'s appearance here last year.

President Bush, VFW, 2008President Bush, VFW, 2008In the first ten minutes, Bush drew applause a dozen times. By comparison, Obama was applauded eleven times in his opening ten minutes today. From the press section in the middle of the large room, I heard a loud "Hooah!" of approval two or three times.

Stolberg's characterization is, for the most part, accurate. But I have one more quibble. She characterizes the audience response as "polite." It was more than that; it was "respectful." If that seems like a distinction without a difference to you, you didn't spend a few minutes outside the Phoenix Convention Center before the President's appearance this morning. The vitriol that pours from cable news was on display on the hot streets of Phoenix. The only thing worse than a misinformed angry mob is a sweaty misinformed angry mob. The heat itself makes tempers flare and these folks came prepped to flare.

My take on Obama's reception is that it says something good both about the VFW and about the President. They showed mutual respect. The servicemen and women could have sat on their hands, but they didn't. Obama could have phoned this one in, but he didn't.

Still, while Obama said forcefully that "after serving their country, no veteran should be sleeping on the streets," there are still 131,000 homeless veterans according to the military's own estimates.

The President promised to bring an end to the hated "stop-loss" policy that forces soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to return to combat duty even after their enlistment period is over. Obama has already taken some action on this commitment -- setting a timeline for phasing out stop-loss, and phasing in a larger fighting force.

Whether or not he's able to keep to those timelines, however, depends on what happens in Afghanistan, a campaign which, the president acknowledged again today, "will not be quick..." and "...will not be easy."

He added:

This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.

In other words, just because we're pulling our men and women out of Iraq, don't plan on the military coming home from that region anytime soon. We are pulling out of Iraq, but we may simultaneously deploy more troops to Afghanistan.

How long will the American people support continuing the war, whether the battlefield is in Iraq or Afghanistan? From his remarks at today's VFW convention, President Obama clearly hopes Americans agree that Afghanistan is a war of necessity and are prepared to fight it for some time.