Mojo - November 2010

(A Lot) More on Anwar Al-Awlaki

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 11:50 PM PST

Benjamin Wittes, a national security law expert at the Brookings Institution, has posted an extensive response to my post earlier today about the debate surrounding Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Al Qaeda propagandist with American citizenship who is supposedly hiding out in Yemen. The Obama administration has reportedly targeted al-Awlaki for death.

(Before I launch into all this, I want to thank Wittes for taking the time and energy to respond and engage. I've really enjoyed the back and forth.)

To recap: I accused Wittes of using a straw man argument to attack the position of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, two groups that are suing in the hopes of getting a court to restrict the circumstances under which the government can order al-Awlaki's (or another citizen's) death.

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Army Kicks Out More Gays Than Fat Soldiers

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 2:26 PM PST

As Congress prepares—again—to debate Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Mother Jones has unearthed data showing the Army in recent years has been tougher on purging gays from the ranks than soldiers who are physically unfit for duty.

Earlier today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates released a military study showing that repeal of the services' ban on gays wouldn't adversely affect force readiness. But the Army's recent discharge statistics (.xls), given to MoJo by a government source, suggest that the service has been far more concerned about its soldiers' sexual orientation than their waistlines, muscular endurance, or cardiovascular ability. In fiscal 2007 and 2008, the Army brass threw out 592 enlisted members for violating DADT—more soldiers than it ejected for excessive body fat or fitness-test failures combined. (See info box below.)

The Pentagon's Don't Ask, Don't Tell Report

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 1:35 PM PST

The Pentagon has finally released its long-awaited report [PDF] on the potential effects of repealing the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which bans gay men and women from serving openly. The New York Times sort of buried the most interesting bit of it (almost everyone else did, too). The authors, Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer, and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the Army in Europe, weren't asked to investigate whether DADT should be repealed, just what the effects of repeal might be. They found those instructions hard to follow:

[O]ur engagement of the force was wide-ranging enough that we did answer the question of whether the U.S. military can implement repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. To be clear, the Service member survey did not ask the broad question whether Don't Ask, Don't Tell should be repealed. This would, in effect, have been a referendum, and it is not the Department of Defense's practice to make military policy decisions by a referendum of Service members. But, among the 103 questions in the Service member survey and the 44 questions in the spouse survey were numerous opportunities to express, in one way or another, support for or opposition to repeal of the current policy....

...We are both convinced that our military can do this, even during this time of war. We do not underestimate the challenges in implementing a change in the law, but neither should we underestimate the ability of our extraordinarily dedicated Service men and women to adapt to such change and continue to provide our Nation with the military capability to accomplish any mission.

In the end, the review of what was could be done ended up being something very close to a referendum on what should be done. And the pro-repeal side won. 

Defining the Al-Awlaki Case Down

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 12:00 PM PST

There still seems to be some confusion over the issues at stake in the federal court battle over the fate of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Muslim cleric and Al Qaeda booster who is reportedly hiding out in Yemen. The Obama administration has reportedly targeted al-Awlaki for killing. Two civil liberties groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, are suing the government on Al-Awlaki's behalf. They're not saying that the government cannot kill al-Awlaki under any circumstances. They're just saying that the circumstances under which the US government can assassinate a US citizen should be limited and clearly defined. Adam Serwer explained this well earlier this month:

This point is key, and I think it's been lost in the noise—the ACLU/CCR lawsuit doesn't seek to prevent al-Awlaki's killing as a last resort in the event that he poses an imminent danger to Americans, merely ensure that he only be killed under those circumstances. It is also trying to force the government to disclose the criteria under which American citizens are added to its reported "kill list." The government, responding to this claim, argues that the ACLU/CCR lawsuit relies on speculation that those criteria aren't actually being followed.

The idea of an "imminent threat" is the key issue here. Imminency was once the generally accepted legal standard that made it okay for the government to kill a citizen without due process. It's based on the idea that no one is going to fault a cop for shooting a suicide carbomber who is barrelling towards a building. And no one—not even the ACLU and CCR—is going to fault the US government for killing al-Awlaki if his death would prevent immanent death and destruction, rather than simply punish him for alleged past crimes. The civil liberties groups have explicitly acknowledged that they believe the government can kill al-Awlaki as "a last resort to protect against concrete, specific and imminent threats of death or serious physical injury." 

Sen. John McCain Pays Homage to Russ Feingold

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 9:22 AM PST

This morning, the Senate was mostly consumed with various votes on a landmark food safety bill, dealing with amendments banning earmarks and other efforts by Republican Tom Coburn to scuttle the bill. But after all the partisan squabbling over the bill, and a long speech by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) cheering its passage, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain took to the floor. And rather than bemoan the new costly bill and its pile of regulations, McCain instead took a very different tone. He spent the next few minutes paying tribute to outgoing Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), who was defeated in the recent election in his bid for another term.

McCain, who recently pledged not to work with any Democrats on immigration reform, choked up as he said, "Without intending it as a commentary on his successor, I have to confess I think the Senate will be a much poorer place without Russ Feingold in it." He went on to talk about his work with Feingold on trying to reform the campaign finance system, and he credited the Wisconsin senator for being true to his beliefs about the evils of soft money, even when his job was on the line:

We don’t often hear anymore about members of Congress who distinguish themselves by having the courage of their convictions; who risk their personal interests for what they believe is in the public interest. I’ve seen many examples of it here, but the cynicism of our times – among the political class and the media and the voters tends to miss examples of political courage or dismiss them as probable frauds or, at best, exceptions that prove the rule. In his time in the Senate, Russ Feingold, every day and in every way, had the courage of his convictions. And though I am quite a few years older than Russ, and have served in this body longer than he has, I confess I have always felt he was my superior in that cardinal virtue.

McCain, who has lost much of his "maverick" status in the Senate since running for president, seemed heartfelt in his tribute and his sadness at Feingold's departure also seemed genuine. He concluded by saying:

I can’t do justice in these remarks to all of Russ’ many qualities or express completely how much I think this institution benefited from his service here and how much I benefited from knowing him. I lack the eloquence. I don’t think he is replaceable. We would all do well to keep his example in our minds as we serve our constituents and country and convictions. We couldn’t have a better role model.

 

I have every expectation we will remain good friends long after we have both ended our Senate careers. But I will miss him here. Every day. And I will try harder to become half the public servant he is. Because his friendship is an honor, and honors come with responsibilities.

 

McCain's speech was a rather sad reminder about the sorry state of the nation's campaign finance rules. Not only is one of the crafters of major campaign finance reform legislation leaving the Senate, but his legacy has been all but demolished by the Supreme Court in recent years, most notably with its Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate money in elections. But McCain's tribute to Feingold also served as a reminder of happier days in the Senate when Democrats and Republicans actually did work together once in a while to tackle the hard work of solving some of the nation's more pressing problems. When McCain said he was going to miss Feingold, it was clear that he misses those days, too.

DC Ticker on ABC News: Hillary Clinton, sell; Patty Murray, buy.

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 8:30 AM PST

I've previously explained the DC Ticker I compile most days, which is now being featured weekly on ABC News' website show, Political Punch, hosted by Jake Tapper. Here are the picks featured on the latest PP:

* Hillary Clinton, sell. How would you like to explain to allies (and the public) that the US spied on the UN leadership, turned a blind eye to an Afghan vice president caught with $52 million in cash in his possession, and conspired with the Yemen government to cover up secret US bombing in that country? Thanks, WikiLeaks.

* Daniel Ellsberg, buy. Whenever there's a big leak, the O.L. (Original Leaker) reappears.

* Sen. Patty Murray, buy. After winning a reelection nail-biter, Murray's been courted by Democratic leaders to head up its 2012 Senate campaign. This boosts her profile, but that job will be tough, given that Democratic prospects look worse in 2012 than they did this year.

* Reynaldo Decerega, buy. One way to get noticed in Washington: pop the president in the mouth with your elbow during a friendly basketball game. After doing so this past weekend, the little-known director of programs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute became a Google search term.

You can receive the almost-daily DC Ticker report by following my Twitter feed. (#DCticker is the Twitter hashtag.) Please feel free to argue with my selections—though all decisions of the judges are final. And please feel free to make suggestions for buy or sell orders in the comments below or on Twitter (by replying to @DavidCornDC).

DC Ticker is merely an advisory service. It and its author cannot be held liable for any investments made in politicians, policy wonks, or government officials on the basis of the information presented. Invest in politics at your own risk.

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Bogus Attacks On the CFPB

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 7:24 AM PST

First it was Republicans like Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the likely chair of the House financial services committee in the 112th Congress, who took aim at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Now, a high-ranking member of the Federal Reserve system, the agency that will eventually house the CFPB, is taking a cue from the US Chamber of Commerce's playbook and trying to chip away at the bureau's funding and clout.

On Monday, James Bullard, the president of the Fed's St. Louis branch, questioned the amount of money coming out of the Fed's budget to fund the new consumer bureau. Although housed within and funded by the Fed, the bureau, which is being launched by Harvard law professor and former bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, is an independent organization. It takes orders from no one but its presidentially-appointed chief. But the Fed's Bullard said the bureau's funding—about 10 percent of the Federal Reserve System's spending in 2011, 11 percent the year after, and 12 percent in 2013—"is not based on any careful assessment of what the needs of the bureau will be as it attempts to fulfill the mandate of the Congress with regard to consumer protection." He added, "I am concerned about this method of funding for the bureau."

Here's what the math looks like: The Fed system budgeted for $4.4 billion in spending in 2010, which means the CFPB could have its disposal about $440 million in its first year (though that's unlikely as the bureau is still staffing up and not yet at full capacity). But figure the bureau's budget will fall in the $400 to $500 million range with a staff that could reach around 2,200, as experts like Tim Duncan, chairman of American Business Leaders for Financial Reform, have suggested.

Now, let's put that number into some context. By comparison, in 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the nation's top financial regulator, had just over 4,000 employees and a budget of $913 million. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates the derivatives markets, clocks in at around 580 staffers on a $216 million budget, according to its most recent appropriations request. Then there's the Fed system itself, which has 20,000 employees and $4.4 billion in expenses.

When you compare the CFPB to other regulators, you'll see that its funding isn't at all out of whack or arbitrary. Indeed, the CFPB is on par with every other major financial regulator in the US.

A few more important points from Georgetown University law professor and financial expert Adam Levitin:

1. CFPB is not mandated to spend all that money. If CFPB doesn't spend its entire budget, that money goes back to Treasury. Therefore, it's really not a big deal if CFPB is overbudgeted.

2. Recall that a major reason we needed a CFPB was that consumer financial protection was severely compromised by housing it in bank regulators who got their funding from banks, not through the appropriations process.

So it's hard to see where Bullard is coming from here. Maybe he's just pissed that the CFPB is peeling off some of the Fed's money. Then again, given the Fed system's utter failure to protect consumers, choosing to sit on its hands for years in the face of mounting evidence of subprime mortgage abuses and rampant fraud, perhaps Bullard is lucky Congress didn't divert more of the Fed's cash to CFPB.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 30, 2010

Tue Nov. 30, 2010 3:30 AM PST

 

 

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on November 22, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/NYSE Euronext)

WikiLeaks Chic: "Lifestyles of the Kazakhstani Leadership"

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 3:37 PM PST

From a cable released today in the WikiLeaks trove:

Kazakhstan's political elites appear to enjoy typical hobbies—such as travel, horseback riding, and skiing. Not surprisingly, however, they are able to indulge in their hobbies on a grand scale, whether flying Elton John to Kazakhstan for a concert or trading domestic property for a palace in the United Arab Emirates.

Even better is this assessment, which, thank God, has some context in the memo:

President Nazarbayev, like many of his countrymen, has a strong affinity for horses.

Also, since you asked:

There have been separate reports that Nelly Furtado performed at the August 2007 birthday bash for Kulibayev's wife, Dinara Nazarbayeva.

Must have been trying to compete with neighboring Uzbekistan's strongarm dictator and his penchant for Sting. But hey, it's not all glitter in Almaty!

Kazakhstan's political elites also have recreational tastes that are not so exotic. Some, in fact, prefer to relax the old-fashioned way. Defense Minister Akhmetov, a self-proclaimed workaholic, appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true "homo sovieticus" style—i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor.

Is anyone else wowed by the observational and literary prowess of US diplomats? Yowza!

Wikileaks: Can Karzai's Brother be Trusted?

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 1:40 PM PST

A crucial front in the Afghanistan war is the Kandahar region in the southern part of the country. A crucial player in that area is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of President Hamid Karzai. He is the chief of the provincial council—which means he essentially runs the place—and he's long fought off charges that he's a drug-dealing warlord (even claiming the US Drug Enforcement Agency has cleared him of this accusation, though it hasn't).

Now, the latest WikiLeaks dump of classified US State Department cables shows that AWK—as he's called—is in low repute among Americans officials, who nevertheless figure they have no choice but to work with him. In a October 3, 2009, cable to Foggy Bottom reporting on a meeting Frank Ruggiero, the embassy's senior civilian representative for southern Afghanistan, held with AWK, the US embassy in Kabul wrote, "While we must deal with AWK as the head of the Provincial Council, he is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker."

During that meeting, AWK shared suggestions that would seem to benefit, well, AWK. According to the cable—classified "confidential"— he "cautioned against the use of small scale projects and additional cash-for-work-programs." He wanted big infrastructure projects, which would result in lots of cash being passed around and which would be controlled supposedly by local elders. He also proposed, the cable said, that all the local militia commanders providing security to convoys and projects in the area be brought "under one umbrella in Kandahar, with one person given the license for the private security sector." The cable noted, "AWK is understood to have a stake in private security contracting, and has aggressively lobbied the Canadians to have his security services retained for the Dahla Dam refurbishment. Both he and the governor have tried to exert control over how contracts are awarded in the province."

The cable summed up the face-to-face by implying AWK was corrupt:

The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt. Given AWK's reputation for shady dealings, his recommendations for large, costly infrastructure projects should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The cable did not suggest what ought to be done with or about AWK.

Months later, on February 23, 2010, Ruggiero again met with AWK, according to another cable, and AWK, unprompted, raised the allegations of his participation in narcotics trafficking. He offered to take a lie-detector exam and, the cable said, "dismissed the narcotics allegations as part of a campaign to discredit him, particularly by the media, saying the allegations are "like a spice added to a dish to make it more enticing to eat.'" The cable did not record any response Ruggiero made to AWK about this. But the cable—classified "secret—ended up with not a positive assessment of the president's brother:

AWK was eager to engage and rarely stopped talking in the two hour meeting. While he presented himself as a partner to the United States and is eager to be seen as helping the coalition, he also demonstrated that he will dissemble when it suits his needs. He appears not to understand the level of our knowledge of his activities, and that the coalition views many of his activities as malign, particularly relating to his influence over the police. We will need to monitor his activity closely.

WikiLeaks' initial release is rather selective. These are the only two cables in its first batch that come from the US embassy in Kabul. (WikiLeaks will be releasing 251,287 documents in stages over the next few months) Consequently, the documents offer snapshots—not a full picture—of the US government's interactions with and worries about AWK, who still plays a pivotal role in a pivotal area. But these two cables do explicitly illustrate one of the profound challenges of the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy: how to succeed in a war when you don't trust your partners.