Mojo - October 2009

Inside Bonner's Climate Letter Forgeries

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 9:30 AM EDT

Two weeks before the House voted on the historic Waxman-Markey climate bill, a number of key Democrats received letters purportedly from minority groups, urging them to oppose the legislation. The now infamous letters turned out to be forgeries generated by Bonner and Associates, a political consulting firm working on behalf of the coal industry. The story of exactly how the letters found their way to Congress has remained murky, and Bonner has repeatedly blamed the incident on a renegade temp. But documents released today by a congressional investigation and viewed by Mother Jones lift the lid on Bonner's inner workings—offering fresh evidence that deceptive tactics weren't an anomaly for the firm, but were built into its standard operating procedure.

The documents show that Bonner was officially hired on June 10 by the Hawthorn Group, a communications firm which had in turn been enlisted by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal industry lobby. The contract was verbal, according to material Bonner provided to the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. Nothing was committed to paper.

In an email to Bonner headed "Ready to Rumble," Hawthorn lists seven key Democratic targets it believed could be pressured to vote against the bill. Hawthorn also named specific interest groups it hoped would write letters opposing the legislation—especially organizations “representing the interests of veterans, senior citizens, minorities, and other groups," according to the documents. The email requests Bonner to produce five letters from such groups in the district of each targeted lawmaker.

The investigation offers a rare glimpse into Bonner's operations—and by extension the shadowy art of astroturfing. A sample script provided to Bonner employees directs them to mislead listeners about who they represent in order to rustle up letters. "Hi xyz, I am working with seniors/retirees to help stop their utility bills from doubling," reads one script. "Hi xyz, I am working with vets/veterans/veterans organizations to help stop their utility bills from doubling," reads another. As this longer extract shows, at no point do the scripts instruct the callers to reveal that they work for the coal industry:

I am working with seniors to stop an increase in their utility bills. Do you know any senior [sic] that are struggling to get by on Social Security? {wait for response} What would happen if their utility bill doubled? Would they not run the air-conditioner in the summer or not have heat in the winter? What else might they cut out of their budget to have electricity ... food ... medicine? I have a letter that other senior groups have wrote would you write a similar one (OR) would you sign a similar letter?

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Iran Sanctions Bill Pits Obama Against Israel Hardliners

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 6:36 AM EDT

Yesterday morning, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, a bill that would cripple Iran's ability to import refined oil products. The timing, on the heels of a J Street conference of pro-peace religious and political leaders in Washington, was conspicuous. The move could be a veiled political kick in the ribs to J Street, a young lobbying upstart that has launched a clear challenge to AIPAC's hegemony in Washington.

The fight between the groups grew more contentious earlier this month after prominent officials, including Israel's ambassador to the US Michael Oren and New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, withdrew their support for the J Street conference after initially saying they would attend.

Critics of the disputed bill worry that imposing sanctions before Obama pursues all diplomatic avenues could force the administration's hand. In fact, as Robert Dreyfuss notes in his article on the evolving Israel lobby for our September/October issue, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman stated in May that he had "no intention of moving this bill through the legislative process" before Obama completed his diplomatic overtures. But Berman reintroduced the legislation because diplomacy proved too slow for the California Democrat.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 29, 2009

Thu Oct. 29, 2009 6:33 AM EDT

US Army paratroopers prepare to load into a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during an air assault mission to detain a known militant in the Bermel district of Paktika province, Afghanistan, Oct. 13, 2009. The paratroopers are assigned to the 25th Infantry Division's Company B, 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team. (US Army photo by Pfc. Andrya Hill.)

Need To Read: October 29, 2009

Thu Oct. 29, 2009 6:29 AM EDT

Today's must-reads are an acrostic:

(I lied about the acrostic.) Anyway, you can get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

The Latest in the Bonner Forged Letters Controversy

| Wed Oct. 28, 2009 9:33 PM EDT

Jack Bonner—head of controversial political consulting firm Bonner and Associates—and Steve Miller—the CEO of American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity—have a lot of explaining to do on Thursday morning. That's when they're due to be grilled by the House Select Committee on Energy and Global Warming about the role their organizations played in the creation of forged letters urging representatives to vote against the Waxman-Markey climate bill in June. According to documents relating to the matter and viewed by Mother Jones, the hearing will likely shed new light on the inner workings of Bonner—and how it utilizes minority groups on behalf of its corporate clients.

So, in anticipation, a quick recap of what we know so far: the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal front group, coordinated with contractors at the Hawthorn Group, a communications firm, and subcontractors at Bonner and Associates to generate letters and calls to Congress urging members not to support the climate bill. Those letters included at least 13 confirmed forgeries purporting to be from minority groups such as the NAACP, as well as seniors and veterans groups.

The three companies knew about the forgeries at least 48 hours before the House voted on the climate bill on June 26: Bonner notifiied Hawthorn, which alerted ACCCE on June 24. But no attempt was made to contact the three House members who received the fake letters until July 1, according to the documents. In fact, Bonner did not actually reach any member until July 13. (Two of the three recipients of the phony letters voted against the bill.)

ACCCE and Hawthorn have maintained that they expected Bonner to inform representatives, and were assured that the organization would do so. For its part, Bonner has blamed the whole affair on a temporary "rogue" employee.

But this version of events doesn't square with the company's standard protocol, former Bonner employees told Mother Jones.  Generally, they say, the company employs fewer than 10 permanent staffers who oversee dozens of temps. The former employees note that had the organization's own standards been upheld, a permanent staffer would have been responsible for confirming that all letters sent to Congress were genuine. 

We'll have much more on this on Thursday morning—the hearing starts at 9.30.

Now Baucus Wants to Mess With the Climate Bill

| Wed Oct. 28, 2009 2:54 PM EDT

With Lindsey Graham offering support for climate legislation and other Republicans making sympathetic noises too, the prospects for a climate bill had been brightening recently. Or at least they were—until Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) made it clear on Tuesday that he won't vote for the Senate proposal in its current form.

Up until now, Baucus has been too preoccupied with health care reform to devote much time to climate issues. But his ability to gum up the works is significant. He's a member of Sen. Barbara Boxer's Environment and Public Works committee, which will mark up the bill and must approve the measure before it can be considered by the wider Senate. As chair of the Finance Committee, Baucus has also indicated that he plans to assert jurisdiction over how the bill allocates emissions permits.

In the health care debate, Baucus delayed the bill in the Finance Committee for months, watering it down in an effort to win the support of the panel's Republicans. In the end  only one (Olympia Snowe) voted for it. Now, he's apparently proposing a similar process for the climate bill. "I support passing common-sense climate legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while protecting our economy. And the key word in that sentence is 'passing,'" said Baucus at the Environment and Public Works Committee's first hearing on the measure. He questioned whether the bill as written "will lead us closer to or further away" from that goal.

Boxer's committee was expected to pass the legislation with relatively little trouble—the panel is much more progressive on environmental matters than Rep. Henry Waxman's Energy and Commerce Committee, which took the lead in the House. But now Baucus is arguing that a significant number of Senate moderates share his views—and wants to cater to their concerns before the bill even comes before other committees like the agriculture panel which are expected to water down its provisions. "We cannot afford a first step that takes us further away from an achievable consensus on common-sense climate change," Baucus said "We could build that consensus here in this committee. If we don't, we risk wasting another month, another year, another Congress, without taking a step forward into our future."

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Americans Support Cap and Trade After All?

| Wed Oct. 28, 2009 11:55 AM EDT

As I noted last week, Americans seem to be more confused about the science of climate change than they used to be. But even if they're less sure whether global warming is occurring and if so, what causes it, they still support cap and trade, according to a CNN poll released yesterday.

The poll found that 60 percent of Americans favor legislation to cap emissions, a substantial increase in supporters. The last CNN poll on this subject in April found only 44 percent supportive of cap-and-trade, and 51 percent opposed. The number was even higher for younger adults—68 percent of Americans under age 50 back cap-and-trade." Seventy-five percent of Democrats support cap-and-trade, as do nearly six in 10 independents. Perhaps most surprising, even 40 percent of self-identified Republicans said they support the policy.

Last week I suggested that part of the problem is that Americans just don't understand climate policy, and the opponents of action have dominated the conversation. But this latest poll seems to indicate that Americans do support key climate policy goals—lower emissions, clean energy, less dependence on foreign energy—even if they're still confused about the science.

Either that, or it indicates that polls on the subject are not all that useful. But at least this one has positive results!

Karzai's Brother A Spook?

| Wed Oct. 28, 2009 11:53 AM EDT

Afghan National Army soldiers display more than six kilograms of opium discovered in a former insurgent safe house in the Farah province of Afghanistan Dec. 16, 2007. (Photo courtesy of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force - Afghanistan) Afghan National Army soldiers display more than six kilograms of opium discovered in a former insurgent safe house in the Farah province of Afghanistan Dec. 16, 2007. (Photo courtesy of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force - Afghanistan) Today's biggest news is that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected drug kingpin, is "said to be" on the CIA's payroll. The scoop by the New York Times' Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti, and James Risen adds even more drama to the already Hollywood-worthy tale of the Karzai brothers. The six Karzais have done very well for themselves since the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001. But it's very clear from the Times story that not everyone in the US establishment is happy for the brothers. Filkins et. al. say it outright: "The ties to Mr. Karzai have created deep divisions within the Obama administration." But you could tell that from the very fact the story exists. CIA agents don't get outed to the press unless someone is very upset with their behavior. So exactly who is chafing at the payments to Ahmed? Sometime General McChrystal adviser Andrew Exum says he doesn't know if the story is true, but he does know that the military establishment in Afghanistan doesn't much care for Ahmed Karzai:

[N]umerous military officials in southern Afghanistan with whom I have spoken identify AWK and his activities as the biggest problem they face—bigger than the lack of government services or even the Taliban. And so if AWK is "the agency's guy", that leads to a huge point of friction between NATO/ISAF and the CIA. Again, I am not currently serving as an advisor to ISAF and cannot speak for Gen. McChrystal's command.

Of course, as Exum points out, the military folks are already on the record saying Ahmed is a problem. The lead quote in the Times piece is from Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a top military intelligence guy and a McChrystal honcho. And later in the story, Flynn basically accuses the CIA of supporting crime in Afghanistan. "The only way to clean up Chicago is to get rid of Capone," he says. Exum says this is "yet another example of NATO/ISAF carrying out one campaign in Afghanistan while the CIA carries out another." Bottom line: the message from this story, and the leaks to the Times, is pretty clear. McChrystal and his team are telling the CIA they've had enough.

Obama Still Fighting to Cover Up Rendition-to-Torture

| Wed Oct. 28, 2009 11:14 AM EDT

Back in April, five torture victims won a big victory when a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit court of appeals reinstated their lawsuit against a Boeing subsidiary for allegedly flying them to other countries to be tortured under the CIA's extraordinary renditon program. The Obama administration—and before that, the Bush administration—had unsuccessfully pushed for the case to be rejected under the controversial "State Secrets" doctrine. And now the Obama administration has won a second chance to make that happen. On Tuesday, the full Ninth Circuit agreed to rehear the case, Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, and reconsider whether it should be thrown out after all.

The issue at stake in the appeal is whether the government can declare an entire area of its activity off-limits from judicial oversight because it would expose state secrets. The three-judge panel had argued that the courts are perfectly capable of treating such cases with discretion without throwing out the whole thing in advance. If the government could block Mohamed v. Jeppesen, the panel said, that would effectively "cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its contractors from the demands and limits of the law."

The full Ninth Circuit could now reverse that ruling. But why is the Obama administration pushing to keep the rendition-to-torture program secret in the first place? After all, it says the most egregious parts of the program are no longer operative. One possible explanation could be that the administration is worried that exposure of the participating countries—many of which are presumably undemocratic—could make those governments vulnerable and less likely to cooperate with future US intelligence efforts. In other words, in order to continue gathering intelligence about terrorism without torturing people, the Obama administration may be more inclined to cover up the Bush administration's torture program. This is speculation, of course, but it illustrates one of the many ways in which the Bush administration has put its successor in a real bind. 

One final interesting detail: six of the Ninth Circuit's 27 judges have recused themselves from the case—including Jay Bybee, who authored several of the Bush administration's most controversial torture memos.

Kentucky Basketball, Brought to You by Coal

| Wed Oct. 28, 2009 10:40 AM EDT

The University of Kentucky's men's basketball team will soon be sleeping in Coal.

No, you read that right. A group led by Alliance Coal CEO Joseph Craft recently agreed to donate $7 million for a new dorm for the Wildcats—if the school agreed to name it after his favorite thing, coal.

Craft has asked that it be named the "Wildcat Coal Lodge." I can't cover this better than Rachel Maddow did last night, so here's the video: