Mojo - December 2010

Taxpayers Paying Torture Contractors' Legal Bills

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 4:15 PM EST

Taxpayers are currently paying the legal bills for Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two CIA contractors who reportedly helped plan and execute the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" program, the Associated Press' Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo reported Thursday night. The CIA agreed to pay up to $5 million to cover legal fees for the two men—far more than the standard amount that would be covered for employees of the agency (during the Bush administration, it was standard practice for CIA officers to pay half of the cost of insuring themselves against possible legal action). 

Mitchell and Jessen were reportedly at the center of the effort to reverse-engineer interrogation methods from the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training. The SERE training itself was based on interrogation methods that Chinese communists used to extract confessions from American prisoners during the Korean War. Many, if not most, of those confessions were false. In other words, Mitchell and Jessen developed interrogation methods based on training that was based on Chinese techniques the US had described as torture. (The Bush administration reportedly paid them between $1,000 and $2,000 per day to do it.)

Later, Mitchell and Jessen reportedly performed some interrogations—including waterboarding—themselves. The waterboarding technique Mitchell and Jessen reportedly used on suspected Al Qaeda members Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Nashiri was different from the simulation used in SERE because it was "'for real'" and "more poignant and convincing," a CIA inspector general's report later concluded.

It has long been the talk of the town in Washington that Mitchell and Jessen are targets—and perhaps the top or even only targets—of federal prosecutor John Durham's probe into what human rights groups call "torture-plus." Durham's investigation is looking at whether any interrogations of terrorist suspects went beyond the already brutal techniques authorized by John Yoo's so-called "torture memos."

The rumor about Durham targeting Mitchell and Jessen makes sense: politically, it would be far easier for the Obama administration to pursue prosecutions against Mitchell and Jessen, who were outside contractors, than it would be to go after CIA employees or Bush administration officials. (The fact that someone leaked a story about Mitchell and Jessen's legal defense to the AP could also be read as a hint that the men are in Durham's sights.)

Human rights and civil liberties advocates won't be satisfied with a prosecution of Mitchell and Jessen—even a successful one. Many activists would prefer a full, 9/11 Commission-style investigation and report to a prosecutorial campaign that focuses on just a few of the many figures involved in Bush-era interrogation, detention, and rendition practices.

The relevant comparison is the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse investigation, which resulted in jail terms for low-level troops but no higher-level accountability, even though many of the techniques applied to prisoners at Abu Ghraib had been authorized for use by the military and/or the intelligence community. Human rights activists hated the outcome of that investigation. Errol Morris even made a movie about it. And as Adam Serwer points out, the troops at Abu Ghraib didn't get close to the deal Mitchell and Jessen did.

Anyway, if the rumors are true and Durham really is zeroing in on Mitchell and Jessen, America could soon see a scenario in which taxpayers are paying not only for a torture prosecution that won't satisfy the demands of the human rights community but also for the massive, top-notch defense team that will be trying to derail that same prosecution.

Here's a video from ABC News, which tried to get Mitchell and Jessen to speak on the record in April of 2009. Both refused:

In other news, taxpayers are also apparently going to have to foot the bill for Rep. Pete King's (R-N.Y.) McCarthy-esque hearings investigating the American Muslim commmunity.

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War Is Business: The Blog

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 3:39 PM EST

As MJ's resident industrial-military complex guy, I feel it's my duty to introduce the readership to the best information resources out there, and to pass on readers' recommendations, as well. So check out this new watchdog media start-up, War Is Business. Billed as "Rolling Stone guest-edits Jane's Defence Weekly," it's a blog edited by outstanding journalist Corey Pein, and it's already busted out some awesome takes on recent news, like "the Blackwater-Vegan Soap Connection" and the use of US embassy workers as de facto Lockheed arms salesmen. Best of all, it's got a crowdsourcing "DIY" function: Check out a defense firm in its searchable database, and contribute your findings to the website. I'm excited to see what they turn up. Assuming Corey and the rest of the WIB crew don't try to (allegedly) assault any Swedish maidens, of course.

And if you have any recommendations for readers that I can pass on, leave 'em in the comments or ping me. I'll blog/tweet the best of them semi-regularly.

Misdemeanors Hurt Local Economies, Poor People

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 2:12 PM EST

A new report from the left-leaning American Constitution Society presents a not-so-new proposal: Local and state governments that are strapped for cash should reclassify certain misdemeanors as non-criminal infractions. Robert Boruchowitz, a Seattle University law professor and the report's author, writes that it could save the nation's indigent defense system "hundreds of millions, perhaps more than $1 billion per year."

The easiest place to start, Boruchowitz says, may be to ease up on poor people caught driving with licenses that were suspended for outstanding traffic fines. Also on his list are pot possessors, dog leash violators, homeless-feeders, and—a suggestion that could have saved me a headache back in college—minors in possession of alcohol.

It makes you wonder: If the benefits are so obvious, why haven't more places already changed their laws?

The Rubio Ally, His Mom, the $500K, and the Dog Track

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 2:05 PM EST

Rep.-Elect David Rivera (R-Fla.), a longtime pal of new Florida Senator and GOP wunderkind Marco Rubio, is the subject of an investigation involving a Miami dog track that made $510,000 in under-the-table payments to a consulting firm run by Rivera's mom...just weeks after then-state Rep. Rivera handed the dog track a major win in the statehouse.

Food Safety Dies With Spending Bill

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 1:35 PM EST

Tea partiers can't exactly take credit for it, but it looks like the landmark food safety bill passed earlier this month that they fought bitterly isn't going to make it to the president's desk after all.

Earlier this month, Congress managed to pass the bill with strong bipartisan support—and over the objections of both tea partiers afraid the bill would send the government after their seeds and leftie foodie types who feared the bill would squash small farms and artisanal cheese makers. The bill was a decade in the making, despite record numbers of food borne illness outbreaks, from E. coli in spinach to salmonella in peanut butter that killed nine people. A day after the bill passed, however, news broke that language in the bill had been screwed up, rendering it unconstitutional.

Supporters had hoped that a repaired bill would still land on the president's desk this year if it could pass along with a big omnibus spending bill slated for a vote this week. But after Republicans defected in the face of pressure from tea party activists opposed to $8 billion in earmarks buried in the bill, Democrats were forced to withdraw the spending measure, taking the food safety bill along with it. Democrats also tried attaching the food safety bill to a continuing resolution that would have funded the federal government until September. But Republicans have also opposed that measure, leaving Democrats with a scaled-down resolution that would merely keep the government open until February, when the new Congress can deal with the rest of the issues.

Unfortunately, there is no food safety bill in that measure, meaning that unless Democrats come up with another strategy to pass it in the next 24 hours, it's likely to be dead in the water. Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents the victims of food poisoning, was here in DC this week lobbying for the bill's passage. He's been working on it for years and thought the fight was finally over. Now he's not hopeful that it will ever pass. "I can't see of a way to get it done … It's sort of mind-numbing to me that a bill that passed with more [votes] than it would take to make a treaty, in both houses, a bill that had that much support is dying because of what it comes down to is power politics," he says.

As if to drive home the need for the bill, Marler says he woke up this morning in DC only to learn that there's been an E. coli outbreak stemming from cheese made with raw milk, some of the very products crying out for better regulation. "It's not like I'm not going to be out of work," he laments.

UPDATE: The bill unexpectedly passed on Sunday. Read more here.


CNN's Tea Party Debate Fail

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 1:24 PM EST

CNN today announced that it would team up with the Tea Party Express to host a GOP presidential debate over Labor Day next year in Tampa, the site of the Republican National Convention in 2012. Sam Feist, CNN's political director, says the arrangement was designed to give undecided voters a way to educate themselves about "diverse perspectives within the Republican Party, including those of the Tea Party." It's not the first time CNN has partnered with the group. Earlier this year, CNN embedded with Tea Party Express on one of its bus tours, giving the group extensive coverage. But this joint venture is odd for two reasons.

Reason No. 1. The Tea Party Express isn't exactly a grassroots activist group. It's a political action committee created by longtime California GOP political consultants with the firm of Russo Marsh. The PAC has been criticized for raising gobs of money and spending most of it on the services of the consulting firm that founded it. Last year, grassroots tea party activists were up in arms over federal elections filings showing that the PAC had spent donor money lavishly, not on candidates, but on its operators. One particularly outrageous item, by tea party standards: a nearly $1,600 tab for a small meal at a fancy steakhouse in Sacremento. In 2009 almost $900,000 of the $2 million raised by the PAC went to Russo Marsh.

Reason No. 2. TPE has a special relationship with one potential presidential contender: Sarah Palin. The PAC campaigned for Sen. John McCain and Palin in 2008—which was natural for a conservative, Republican-leaning outfit. But it went the extra mile for Palin after the election, running ads that thanked Palin for her service. (The ads didn't thank McCain.) The PAC's coordinator at the time explained that the group believed "there has been an absence of a pro-Palin cohort....This woman's reputation is going to be so damaged that she can never be a national political figure." He said that the goal of the ad was to "preserve her options." News outlets reported that the PAC founders hoped the ads would encourage Palin to run for president. This past year, TPE featured Palin at several of its events during the midterm campaigns. She helped kick off one of its bus tours at a rally in Searchlight, Nevada, where she slammed Sen. Harry Reid, who was in the midst of a tough reelection fight.

CNN's announcement of its unusual debate deal with TPE drew surprised reactions. Politico's Ken Vogel tweeted, "Can't remember a TV net collaborating w/ a PAC on a debate before." GOP consultant Mindy Finn tweeted, "Think CNN trying to build up their conservative street cred?" But the partnership is problematic. CNN, which promotes itself as a mainstream and straight-news outfit, is officially hooking up with an outfit that's been accused of astro-turfing and of cashing in on the tea party movement. And this group clearly has a bias toward Palin, who might be one of the participants in the debate. Can TPE be a neutral party in the 2012 GOP contest if Palin is part of it?

Given all these liabilities, should CNN have invited the Tea Party Express to join the "best political team on TV"? It seems that when it comes to which outfit has the most to gain from this arrangement credibility-wise, TPE has outfoxed CNN.

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Will Obama Go Partisan in the Next Tax Battle?

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 11:55 AM EST

Obama's tax compromise is now headed to his desk, having passed the House on Thursday night despite a late-breaking revolt by disgruntled liberals. The $858 billion deal marks the single most expensive piece of legislation of Obama's presidency so far and has received more bipartisan support than any other major legislation, passing the House 277-148 and the Senate 81-19.

The deal is now being cast not only as a massive win for the president, but also as a pivotal step in "rebranding himself as Obama Classic – the circa-2008 with partisan discord," writes Politico's Glenn Thrush. The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer concurs: "Remember the question after Election Day: Can Obama move to the center to win back the independents who had abandoned the party in November? And if so, how long would it take? Answer: Five weeks." The going assumption is that Obama has kicked off a new phase of non-ideological, centrist dealmaking that will clear a path for him in 2012 to win over the independent voters who broke for the tea party.

But two years from now, in the homestretch of his re-election campaign, Obama will be forced to take up the issue once more as the current extension of the tax-cuts expires. Obama will face a Republican Party that won't be willing to broker the same deals and will be determined to do whatever it takes to defeat him. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner has already issued a challenge, declaring Thursday that the incoming GOP majority would be dedicated to "permanently eliminating the threat of job-killing tax cuts." The current compromise notwithstanding, Democrats are expecting the president to come out swinging on the issue. The tax bill "gives the president the ability to say no when the GOP comes back and wants to extend these tax cuts…and I take him at face value," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) told reporters earlier this week.

If Obama does fulfill expectations and pushes for the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, he'll be positioning himself as a partisan Democrat, not the "Obama Classic" of non-ideological bargains. Of course, he could end up triangulating, backing a watered down tax package—particularly if the economy continues to sputter, making tax increases a harder sell. Either way, Obama will forced into a starkly partisan battle, and he won't have the political capital to rise above the ideological camps on both sides to strike a deal. The current triumph will be a distant memory to voters. If Obama can reinvent himself in five weeks' time, as Krauthammer argues, his rebranding effort could dissolve just as quickly.

Tea Party Finally Scores A Victory In Congress

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 11:42 AM EST

Well, it looks like the tea partiers won't get to see the federal government shutdown showdown they were looking for after all. Conservative activists were outraged that Congress was about to pass a $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill that contained about $8 billion worth of earmarks, many of which were requested by Republicans. The tea partiers had been pressuring GOP lawmakers to walk away from the bill (and all their earmarks) and to threaten to shut down the government if Democrats failed to bend to their will. They had been calling on supporters to stage mini-tea party protests in front of their Senators' district offices and to hold "National Omnibus Spending/Appropriations Read-Ins" across the country.

Organizers from Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation and FreedomWorks were urging activists to find 24-hour restaurants, malls or other public venues where they could read all 1,924 pages of the bill Thursday night in protest of its passage. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Tea Party Express's Amy Kremer was calling on activists to come to the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill to read the bill aloud in protest with other tea partiers. Organizers were estimating that reading the bill aloud would take more than 50 hours and planned to stick it out through Saturday.

Alas, by 9 p.m. last night, all the fun had been called off. Enough Republicans abandoned the bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled it from consideration and instead said Democrats would move forward a measure that would continue funding the government at current levels until the next Congress could deal with the spending issues. News of the spending bill's death was greatly overshadowed by Congress' passage of a huge tax cut bill (which tea party activists also abhorred) that's headed to President Obama's desk today. But tea partiers seemed happy to declare at least one victory. 

During the lame duck session, angry conservatives haven't had much luck in getting Congress to do much of anything they wanted. In the face of tea party opposition, Republicans voted with their Democratic colleagues to pass a food safety bill (which ended up not becoming law anyway, because of a glitch in how it was written). GOP leadership also elected a slate of committee chairs over the objections of tea partiers, including installing Rep. Hal "King of Pork" Rogers (R-KY) as chair of the House Appropriations Committee and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Upton had committed the heresy of supporting legislation that would ban the incandescent light bulb. The spending fight is postponed rather than defeated. But under the circumstances, it's clear that the tea partiers are happy to register a "win" on their side of the scoreboard. Florida activist Robin Stublen, who had spearheaded a petition drive against the spending bill and who was an outspoken proponent of shutting down the government, sent out a press release last night giving Florida tea partiers credit for the bill's defeat, writing:

Florida grassroots leaders activated within hours of the release of the Omnibus Bill proving once again that the Florida coalition of grassroots activist set the tone across the country. We are pleased with the outcome and thank the Republican leadership, especially Senator Jim DeMint, for standing with grassroots activist across the country.

Please Don't Bring Your Guns to the Riot

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 10:12 AM EST

Score one for law enforcement.

On Thursday, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence filed a brief in a federal court in North Carolina seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit that hopes to allow private citizens to carry guns openly during riots or other, similar emergencies. The suit, Bateman v. Purdue, was filed by the Second Amendment Foundation in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

As it turns out, legalizing the wannabe Frank Castles and Neos of the world introduces some serious problems for law enforcement. From a press release announcing the brief:

The Brady Center's brief argues that there is no right of armed vigilantes to take to the streets during riots or congregate in the vicinity of emergency responders trying to secure a downtown during riots, looting, or terrorist attacks. The prospect of police and emergency responders being powerless to stop bands of armed citizens from taking to the streets during emergencies, looting, or rioting poses a serious threat to the government’s ability to maintain public order and deliver emergency services. If the lawsuit were successful, law enforcement would be unable to detect whether roaming armed individuals or gangs were would-be looters, terrorists, or vigilantes, thus jeopardizing their safety and their ability to respond to states of emergency.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that the Second Amendment grants a right to possess a gun in the home for self-defense, but emphasized that this right “is not unlimited” and is subject to “reasonable firearms regulations.” The Supreme Court has held that bans on carrying concealed weapons do not violate the Second Amendment and courts have given the government broad authority to restore order during riots and emergencies.

Brady Center President Paul Helmke says that the second amendment doesn't legalize vigilantism, even during times of emergency. “Police and emergency responders seeking to quell a riot," he said, "should not be forced to contend with legally-authorized armed individuals and groups roaming alleys and public streets." You don't say!

Corn on Hardball, Maddow: Christmas Maneuvering, Obama's Afghan Dilemma

Fri Dec. 17, 2010 9:54 AM EST

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, was on both Hardball with Chris Matthews (Happy Birthday, Chris!) and the Rachel Maddow Show on Thursday night. The Maddow segment focused on Afghanistan, while the Hardball hit centered on legislative maneuvering as the 111th Congress winds down. Here they are:

You can read more about David's take on "Obama's war" in the article "Obama's Afghan Tightrope Walk."