Mojo - January 2011

The State of the Union That Got Away

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 4:45 AM PST

President Barack Obama is due to give his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Politico's Roger Simon had an interesting column on Friday arguing that no one remembers these speeches, and that ultimately they don't really matter. "Ask yourself if you can remember a single memorable line from a State of the Union address," Simon writes, before pointing out that many of the lines that echo down through history are from inaugural addresses, not SOTU speeches. But as a friend points out in an email, Simon makes one glaring (and recent) omission, from George W. Bush's SOTU in 2003. They're called the "16 words," and you almost certainly remember them:

The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

FactCheck.org has a good explainer on the history of that line. In July 2003, several months after the speech, former ambassador Joe Wilson published his famous New York Times column explaining why he thought the line was bogus. The day after Wilson published his article, Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer told the media that the information on "yellow cake" had turned out to be "incorrect." CIA Director George Tenet took the blame for the line later that day: "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President." (Later, of course, someone told columnist Bob Novak that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was a CIA officer, and Novak printed it.) This all seems like pretty important recent history, and should serve as a reminder that as cynical as the press corps sometimes gets about these speeches, they really do matter. You should watch.

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The GOP's Safety Net Wrecking Crew

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 4:00 AM PST

The new Republican majority, led by Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), rode into the House of Representatives this year promising to slash $100 billion from the federal budget in a year's time. At the start, that promise was woefully short on details. This past week, however, the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a conservative bloc of House lawmakers, shed some light on the GOP's plans when it released a report outlining potential cuts. A fiscal expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) analyzed the RSC's plans—and found some grisly details.

But first, let's start with House Speaker Boehner's plan, which calls for cuts of 21 percent to non-security discretionary programs (meaning defense spending and entitlements like Medicare and Social Security go untouched). Boehner's plan would slice $105 billion off President Obama's $483 billion 2011 budget proposal. As I previously reported, Boehner's proposal, outlined in the GOP's "Pledge to America," would hit social services hard, cutting $8.7 billion from K-12 education, $6.9 billion from local- and state-run housing programs, and $1.6 billion from food stamps for pregnant women, infants, and at-risk children. Or as CBPP budget guru Jim Horney put it, "Boehner’s proposal would represent the deepest annual cut in funding for these programs in recent U.S. history. It would remove substantial purchasing power from a weak economy, thereby costing hundreds of thousands of jobs and raising risks of a double-dip recession."

The RSC's plan, however, cuts far deeper, Horney found. It would slash 42 percent from those same non-security discretionary programs, if applied evenly across all programs. That's double what John Boehner wants. That would mean nearly halving funding for veterans' health care and K-12 education, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health, among many more.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean the same 42-percent cut would be applied to all programs. Funding for certain agencies and programs could be protected entirely, while others could be more or less eviscerated. Nonetheless, it's hard to understate how drastic the RSC's cuts would be. Here is Horney's take:

In essence, the RSC proposal would eviscerate the vital services and benefits that the federal government provides and that improve the living standards and quality of life for millions of Americans from New York to California, Maine to Texas.

During the recent election, many voters supported calls for less government spending. But they were told that policymakers could reach this goal largely by eliminating earmarks and obvious "Waste, fraud, and abuse." I doubt many Americans thought lawmakers would interpret the election as a mandate to cut a vast array of crucial programs by nearly half. I also doubt they would be happy with such an outcome.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 24, 2011

Mon Jan. 24, 2011 3:30 AM PST

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Clifford Rakes shuts down his aircraft's systems following a mission near Baghdad, Jan. 12, 2011. Rakes is a Black Hawk pilot assigned to the 1st Infantry Division's Company A, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, Enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade. Rakes and other Black Hawk crews transport military and civilian VIPs between U.S. bases around Iraq. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Roland Hale

Gays at War: Nothing New to MoJo

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 3:49 PM PST

This exuberant image by illustrator Lucinda Cowell appeared on the cover of the February/March 1983 issue of Mother Jones. In that issue, Alan Bérubé, the author of "Coming Out Under Fire," used archival letters, interviews, and declassified government records to argue that modern gay liberation began during World War II, when "thousands of gay men and lesbians were swept up by the war effort and given unprecedented opportunities to discover one another." He points out that the 1969 Stonewall riots, often seen as the beginning of the gay liberation movement, happened only after this "gay awakening" and the subsequent McCarthy-era crackdowns.

The Week in Sharia: Elvis Retreats, Texas Reloads

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 3:37 PM PST

The new face of terror? (Photo: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen) The new face of terror? (Photo: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)Let's get right to it:

  • New Jersey's sterling reputation is under attack! Republican Gov. Chris Christie, floated by some conservatives as a possible 2012 candidate, has become the unlikely target of the anti-Sharia fringe after appointing Sohail Mohammed, a known Muslim, to the state superior court. Right-wing blogger Pamela Geller summed things up nicely: "Governor Christie looked and sounded like he could be presidential. He's not. He's in bed with the enemy. All the other stuff doesn't matter if you don't have your freedom."
  • Also in bed with the enemy, apparently, is Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), whose upcoming hearings on the "radicalization" of the American Muslim community came under fire this week—from the right. Steve Emerson, of the totally legit-sounding Investigative Project on Terrorism, alleged that King had "caved in to the demands of radical Islamists" by neglecting to invite him to testify. I detailed King's own history of radicalism here.
  • Remember that whole to-do about the proposed Islamic community center in Manhattan? It turns out the entire anti-mosque advertising campaign was paid for by one (1) New York hedge-fund manager, Robert Mercer, possibly under the pretense of demonstrating to political power brokers that he was willing spend tons money if necessary, on the totally unrelated issue of high-frequency trading.
  • Texas is facing a $27 billion budget deficit, so naturally the state legislature is hard at working on the political equivalent of hitting "refresh" on your Facebook feed all day: State Rep. Leo Berman (author of his state's birther bill) has introduced legislation to ban Sharia law from being used in Texas courts. Far-right activists believe Sharia could subject citizens to extremely harsh punishments for dubious infractions—and isn't that what the state's criminal justice system is for?
  • Meanwhile, in Indiana, a similar proposal has been shelved—for the time being. State Rep. (and Elvis impersonator) Bruce Borders, who had previously floated the ban to send the message "that Indiana does not recognize Sharia law, or Muslim law," told the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, that he has not actually introduced any such legislation yet.
  • And finally, the Village Voice reports that the NYPD has been requiring its officers to watch a film called The Third Jihad as part of their counter-terrorism training. Per the Voice: "The favorite image in The Third Jihad—shown over and over—is an enormous black-and-white Islamic flag flying over the White House." At one point the narrator warns that "One of their primary tactics is deception." I mean, just look at Chris Christie.

Florida GOP Champions Freedom, Liberty, and Busted Poop Tanks

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 2:02 PM PST

Newly anointed billionaire arch-conservative Florida governor Rick Scott—along with his all-GOP cabinet and tea-party-led state legislature—will get around to the state's budget crisis, its mortgage meltdown, its educational woes, its brain drain, its disaster-preparedness services, and its corruption problems eventually. But not until they've finished with their crap storm over, well, crap.

Last spring, outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist signed a landmark bill into law requiring septic tanks to undergo once-every-five-year inspections—the first time in Florida history that such inspections would be instituted. In a state where more than half of its 2.6 million septic tanks are over 30 years old, and 10 percent are estimated to be failing—a state where the water table is usually just a couple of inches below your feet—this didn't seem like such a bad idea. Not even to last session's Republicans: The bill's author was Lee Constantine, a GOP representative from Altamonte Springs. It was a "consensus bill on water policy which the agency involved, local government, environmentalists, business and industry support," he said.

Or, it was creeping tyranny! After the liberty wing of the GOP won a bevy of seats in the Legislature last November, the body's incoming leadership held a special session and passed a new bill that would halt the septic-tank inspections. Scott signed it last Wednesday. The reason? Republicans say the state's taxpayers don't want Big Government all up in their shit:

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What Progressives Want from Obama's SOTU: Fight

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 8:40 AM PST

In his PoliticsDaily.com column, David Corn takes a stab at answering this question: what do progressives want from President Barack Obama's upcoming State of the Union address? He notes he's "no spokesperson for the left. But here's my hunch: fight." Corn explains:

The first two years of Obama's presidency have yielded mixed feelings among many of his supporters. He succeeded in scoring big legislative victories with his stimulus package, the health care bill, and the Wall Street reform law. But these initiatives all were marked by compromises that disappointed progressives....

In many of these episodes, progressives saw Obama toiling hard but not fighting fiercely enough. On health care, he spent much time courting a few Republicans who ended up not helping the bill pass. At the same time, Republicans and conservatives pummeled Obama, falsely calling the bill a "government takeover" of health care and decrying "death panels" that did not exist. It did not seem a fair face-off. Regarding the recovery package, Republican leaders asserted that the measure did not create a single new job. That was not true. (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has stated that the stimulus measure saved or created up to 3 million jobs.) The Obama White House did try to talk up the success of the package. But what infuriated progressives was that the president and his crew were not able to punch back in kind. Facing Republican obfuscation, obstruction, and prevarication, Obama and his aides, perhaps trying too hard to be reasonable and responsible, kept losing the narrative wars. The president was slogging it out on Capitol Hill, but not confronting the right-wing attack machine with sufficient might.

This was frustrating for Obama's loyalists. And the grand climax came with the tax cut compromise Obama struck with the GOPers last month. As a candidate and as a president, he had pledged to oppose extending the Bush tax cut bonuses for the well-to-do. Then -- poof! -- he was hailing a package that included this extension (while still proclaiming his opposition to that provision). It again appeared as if the president had not been willing to slug it out with the other side.

Corn writes that progressives "will be listening on Tuesday night to what Obama has to say about policy matters -- Social Security, job creation, Afghanistan. They will be quite sensitive to any hints that he's willing to follow the suggestions of deficit hawks on Social Security and budget cuts. (In this speech, Obama will continue his tightrope walk: hailing government efforts to keep the anemic recovery going, while calling for a path toward balancing the government's books.) But most of all, they will be looking for signs that Obama is willing to battle the conservative and Republican forces that politically outmaneuvered him this past year."

He concludes:

During the State of the Union address, Obama will probably do what most presidents do: cover a laundry list of accomplishments and present a shopping list of policy initiatives. In those details, there will be much for progressives to applaud. But tone will trump specifics. The overarching question many progressives have about Obama, I'm guessing, is this: How vigorously will he fight the newly empowered Republicans for what we believe in? On Tuesday night, they want to see him flex.

Political muscle, that is.

 

Video: FBI Questioned Gulet Mohamed Without Counsel

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 5:47 AM PST

UPDATE: Gulet Mohamed was released over two hours after he was detained at Dulles airport by government agents. He left Dulles for his home in Alexandria, Virginia, without saying much about the questioning (at his lawyer's suggestion). But as he was entering a taxi, a reporter asked, "What everyone wants to know is, are you a terrorist?" Mohamed replied, "I am not a terrorist." Here's a photo of him in the cab.

UPDATE 2: Here's a video of some of the events of this morning:

The video was shot by me and produced by the estimable Siddhartha Mahanta. Gulet Mohamed's lawyer, Gadeir Abbas, has a shaved head and a red tie. Gulet has closely-shorn hair and a beard and is wearing a greyish sweatshirt with an emblem on it.

ORIGINAL POST: FBI agents have detained and are interrogating Gulet Mohamed, an American teen who was detained in Kuwait for a month, without counsel at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC, Mohamed's lawyer said Friday morning.

Mohamed's entire family was waiting for the teen, who says he was beaten and harshly interrogated in Kuwait by unknown officials and intimidated and repeatedly interrogated by the FBI despite asking repeatedly for his lawyer and invoking his right to remain silent. But a customs official called Mohamed's lawyer, Gadeir Abbas, on an airport phone around 7:30 a.m. and informed him that Mohamed would not be emerging. When Abbas demanded to represent his client, he says the customs official suggested he call the FBI's 1-800 number and then hung up. (I witnessed Abbas' end of the phone conversation.)

"It's outrageous that after the manifestly objectionable treatment that the US government has visited upon Gulet that they continue to violate his rights and cause his family distress," Abbas tells Mother Jones.

The FBI did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment. Airport officials, TSA officers, and airport police present on the scene declined to explain the situation further.

Mohamed's family and lawyer claim that Mohamed has asked FBI officials for counsel multiple times during previous questioning. US legal and constitutional restrictions generally require that custodial interrogations stop when a subject asks for his lawyer. That rule does not seem to have been followed in this case. Mohamed traveled to Yemen and Somalia, two hotbeds of anti-American extremism, in 2009 (to visit family and learn Arabic, his family says). But he has not been charged with a crime in any country.

Airport officials are now trying to force television and other media to move their setup out of the main arrival area and down to the ground transportation floor. 

Gay Rights and the GOP in the Iowa Caucuses

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 5:00 AM PST

Anti-gay-rights crusader Bob Vander Plaats buddied up with Chuck Norris and played a central role in Mike Huckabee’s Iowa caucus victory in 2008. Last November, he successfully got voters to oust three state Supreme Court justices whose decision opened the door to gay marriage. Now he's got his eye on the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses. But how far can GOP presidential hopefuls go to appease social conservatives without alienating an increasingly tolerant general electorate?

Today Vander Plaats heads the "Christ-centered" Family Leader, the umbrella organization for groups including the Iowa Family Policy Center, whose president routinely says things like, "The secondhand impacts of certain homosexual acts are arguably more destructive, and potentially more costly to society than smoking." The Family Leader, determined to make evangelical family values central to the 2012 election, has announced plans to host a series of speeches by the next batch of presidential aspirants starting with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 21, 2011

Fri Jan. 21, 2011 3:30 AM PST

Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Cesaitis, front, and Spc. Daniel Scott walk though the Shajoy bazaar during a quality assurance, quality control site visit Jan. 18. Sergeant Cesaitis and Specialist Scott are assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson