Mojo - September 2011

Obama's Dangerous Awlaki Precedent

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 11:55 AM EDT

The central question in the death of American extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is not his innocence. That really misses the point. Awlaki was the only publicly known name on a covert list of American citizens the US government believes it can legally kill without charge or trial. Awlaki's killing can't be viewed as a one-off situation; what we're talking about is the establishment of a precedent by which a US president can secretly order the death of an American citizen unchecked by any outside process. Rules that get established on the basis that they only apply to the "bad guys" tend to be ripe for abuse, particularly when they're secret. 

Terrorism, as compared to traditional warfare, naturally brings up different legal and moral issues. Chief among these is the fact that because terrorists don't wear uniforms, they're hard to identify as terrorists. Those kinds of questions become somewhat easier in a theater of active military combat. No one's questioning, for example, whether or not Awlaki could be legally killed if he were in Afghanistan holding a rifle and firing at a US soldier, simply because he happens to be a citizen. It gets much harder when you start talking about killing people in countries like Yemen where the US can't be said to be fighting anything resembling a traditional military conflict. Courts become much more important in this context precisely because they help credibly determine who is actually a combatant and who isn't. 

Uncritically endorsing the administration's authority to kill Awlaki on the basis that he was likely guilty, or an obviously terrible human being, is short-sighted. Because what we're talking about here is not whether Awlaki in particular deserved to die. What we're talking about is trusting the president with the authority to decide, with the minor bureaucratic burden of asking "specific permission," whether an American citizen is or isn't a terrorist and then quietly rendering a lethal sanction against them. 

The question is not whether or not you trust that President Obama made the right decision here. It's whether or not you trust him, and all future presidents, to do so—and to do so in complete secrecy. 

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Policy Riders Ride Again

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 11:00 AM EDT
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.)

You could be forgiven for thinking it's April all over again. On Thursday, House Republicans released draft legislation to fund the government's day-to-day health, labor, and education programs for the rest of the year. The $153 billion measure guts heat subsidies for the poor by nearly a third, phases out funding for the Title X family planning program, cuts federal money for NPR, blocks funding to implement health care reform, and reduces eligibility for grants to low-income college students.

The bill, which cuts program spending by 2.5 percent (relative to its current level) is expected to be packaged into a larger omnibus spending bill, instead of as stand-alone legislation. Committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) says it's all about keeping federal agencies solvent. "To protect critical programs and services that many Americans rely on—especially in this time of fiscal crisis—the bill takes decisive action to cut duplicative, inefficient and wasteful spending to help get these agency budgets onto sustainable financial footing," he said.

That's one way of looking at it. Another: That the GOP is anxious to eviscerate Democratic priorities through these policy "riders," just like it did during the prolonged negotiations over a similar budget bill in April. But TPM reports that the bill has no shot in Senate. According to one Senate aide: 

[I]t has no chance of passing the Senate. The Senate will not agree to kicking hundreds of thousands of students out of the Pell Grant program, decimating programs that train unemployed workers to get a new job, or adopting any of the dozens of radical legislative riders that the Chairman has proposed.

But the stopgap bill isn't the first instance of the GOP playing to type. Earlier this month, the House Energy and Commerce committee released legislation to peel back some of health care reform's key patient protections. Neither that measure nor this one helps create jobs or gives a boost to states struggling to keep crucial health and education programs afloat.

Based on the evidence, we can say this much about House Republicans: They're awfully consistent. 

Justifying the Awlaki Attack

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 10:43 AM EDT
John Brennan

Last month, John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism czar, delivered a major speech at Harvard on the administration's counterterrorism practices at home and abroad, contending that they all are guided by the rule of law. He did not specifically address the issue of the US government targeting an American citizen overseas for assassination. Nor did he mention Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who had become associated with Al Qaeda in Yemen and linked to terrorist attacks in the United States—and who was reportedly killed on Friday in a drone strike. But Brennan did defend the Obama administration's right to launch military assaults in other countries aimed at Al Qaeda and its allies.

He noted, "This Administration's counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan and Iraq are focused on those individuals who are a threat to the United States, whose removal would cause a significant—even if only temporary—disruption of the plans and capabilities of Al Qaeda and its associated forces."

Civil libertarians might take exception to this standard. But Brennan noted that the administration did adhere to a standard of "imminence" regarding the threat posed by such targets. He did, however, maintain that a "more flexible understanding of 'imminence' may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups, in part because threats posed by non-state actors do not present themselves in the ways that evidenced imminence in more traditional conflicts."

This high-level drone attack may spur further debate over the rule of law and drone attacks. Then again, it may not spur much debate: Taking out Awlaki will likely be a popular move, and perhaps a productive one, in Obama's necessary war against Al Qaeda. There can be little doubt that his administration's use of drone strikes—and the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden—has made it tougher for Al Qaeda to again attack the United States.

Obama has repeatedly said that Americans do not have to make a false choice between security and values. Yet counterterrorism practices—including indefinite detentions—raise uneasy questions. Can an effective shadow war be prosecuted within a clear and transparent set of rules that preserve accountability and due process? At Harvard, Brennan claimed that's what the administration is doing. But there still seems to be some fog.

Here's the portion of the Brennan speech in which he addresses the sort of action that struck Awlaki:

As the president has said many times, we are at war with Al Qaeda. In an indisputable act of aggression, Al Qaeda attacked our nation and killed nearly 3,000 innocent people. And as we were reminded just last weekend, Al Qaeda seeks to attack us again. Our ongoing armed conflict with Al Qaeda stems from our right—recognized under international law—to self defense.

An area in which there is some disagreement is the geographic scope of the conflict. The United States does not view our authority to use military force against Al Qaeda as being restricted solely to "hot" battlefields like Afghanistan. Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that —in accordance with international law—we have the authority to take action against Al Qaeda and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time. And as President Obama has stated on numerous occasions, we reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves.

That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state's sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally—and on the way in which we can use force—in foreign territories.

Others in the international community—including some of our closest allies and partners—take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the "hot" battlefields. As such, they argue that, outside of these two active theaters, the United States can only act in self-defense against Al Qaeda when they are planning, engaging in, or threatening an armed attack against US interests if it amounts to an "imminent" threat.

In practice, the US approach to targeting in the conflict with Al Qaeda is far more aligned with our allies' approach than many assume.  This administration’s counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan and Iraq are focused on those individuals who are a threat to the United States, whose removal would cause a significant—even if only temporary—disruption of the plans and capabilities of Al Qaeda and its associated forces.  Practically speaking, then, the question turns principally on how you define "imminence."

We are finding increasing recognition in the international community that a more flexible understanding of "imminence" may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups, in part because threats posed by non-state actors do not present themselves in the ways that evidenced imminence in more traditional conflicts. After all, Al Qaeda does not follow a traditional command structure, wear uniforms, carry its arms openly, or mass its troops at the borders of the nations it attacks. Nonetheless, it possesses the demonstrated capability to strike with little notice and cause significant civilian or military casualties. Over time, an increasing number of our international counterterrorism partners have begun to recognize that the traditional conception of what constitutes an "imminent" attack should be broadened in light of the modern-day capabilities, techniques, and technological innovations of terrorist organizations.

US Kills Al Qaeda-Linked Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 9:11 AM EDT
Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the only publicly known name on a "kill list" of US citizens abroad that the government believes it has the authority to assassinate without charge or trial, was reportedly killed in Yemen on Friday morning by an American airstrike. His death marks the first public example of the US government successfully targeting and killing an American citizen abroad based on the suspicion of terrorist activities. 

Awlaki emerged in recent years as one of the most recognizable figures associated with Al Qaeda, largely because US officials had linked him to high-profile attacks (and attempted ones), including Nidal Malik Hasan's Fort Hood rampage, Faisal Shahzad's botched attempt to explode a car bomb in Times Square, and Umar Abdulmutallab's failed Christmas Day plane bombing. Nevertheless, the extent of Awlaki's operational role in any particular plot was never proven, raising the uncomfortable question of whether or not the US government had asserted the authority to kill a US citizen based solely on his ability to "inspire" terrorism through extremist sermons and magazine articles. 

Though Awlaki was never indicted in a court of law, he was essentially convicted in the court of public opinion, with the mainstream media largely uncritical of the government's shifting explanations for why he was legally targetable. State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh has argued that "a state engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force," meaning that killing Awlaki without trial is justifiable because he was a suspected member Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a faction at war with the United States.

Last December, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Awlaki's father, Nasser, seeking to compel the government to disclose the internal legal process by which it determines that it has the authority to kill an American citizen based on the suspicion of terrorism. Judge John Bates ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit because Awlaki could have brought the case himself and chose not to, and that there were "no judicially manageable standards" by which the court could evaluate the government's authority to kill an American terrorism suspect. 

The United States has wrongly announced the death of suspected terrorist figures before. However, if he has in fact been killed, he would be the second American citizen the US has acknowledged killing in the context of a strike against an Al Qaeda-affiliated target. The first was Kamal Derwish, who was born in Buffalo, New York, and killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2002. Back then, US officials felt compelled to assure reporters that he was not the actual target and that they weren't aware he was in the car that was destroyed until after the strike. Perhaps they were worried about the legal implications of asserting that a US president possesses the ultimate power of life or death over an American citizen. 

A Terror Plot Wile E. Coyote Might Love

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Everybody freak out! A radical Muslim scientist planned to destroy the US Capitol and Pentagon with killer drones! Oh, wait…A guy with an undergrad physics degree who lives in his parents' basement was possibly entrapped (or not!) trying to put explosives on model airplanes that he'd bought with a comically false identity. According to the federal indictment against 26-year-old Rezwan Ferdaus:

 

(Dave Winfield, by the way, is the name of one of the best pure hitters in Major League Baseball.) The indictment goes on to say that Ferdaus ordered a remote-control airplane and explained his plan to two undercover FBI agents:

 

Ferdaus allegedly hoped to fly one of his DIY drones "into the center" of the Capitol dome, "which would cause it to cave in."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 30, 2011

Fri Sep. 30, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

Tech. Sgt. Andrew Briggs protects his head from the intense heat generated by the engines of a C-130 Hercules engine running during an aeromedical evacuation mission Sept. 7, 2011, at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. Briggs is a loadmaster assigned to the 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. US Air Force photo by Master Sgt Jeffrey Allen.

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Why You Shouldn't Take Notes on Terrorist Plots

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

On Wednesday the FBI announced that it had arrested Rezwan Ferdaus, a Northeastern University graduate in physics, for allegedly plotting to fly model planes packed with explosives into government buildings in Washington, DC, and elsewhere. As with previous sting operations, the actual plot, reliant on equipment provided by undercover FBI agents, was never going to take place. Unlike previous sting operations, the FBI got the target to outline the entire thing in writing. 

"It seems like the FBI intentionally trying to ensure the entrapment defense couldn't be mounted," says Karen Greenberg of the Fordham Center on National Security. 

According to the criminal complaint, Ferdaus handed the FBI agents a thumb drive with a plan described as "extremely detailed, well written, and annotated with numerous pictures." Ferdaus doesn't appear to have found anything suspicious about two supposed Al Qaeda operatives asking for what sounds, essentially, like a grant proposal.

As Trevor Aaronson reported in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, the FBI has relied increasingly on these kinds of sting operations as they try to shift focus from "professional" terrorists to "lone wolf" types who haven't received any kind of formal training. The government has come under criticism from civil liberties advocates who say that the government is using agent provocateurs to manufacture terror plots involving people who might not otherwise have committed crimes.

Coal Baron Hosts Perry Party

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 5:06 PM EDT

Coal executive Robert Murray is hosting a fundraiser on Thursday night for the climate deniers' favorite GOP presidential candidate, Rick Perry. Murray is the CEO of the Ohio-based Murray Energy Corporation and will be hosting the event at the White Palace Ballroom of Wheeling, West Virginia.

It's not hard to see why Perry and Murray would like each other. Both Murray and Perry are both vocal (and often colorful) climate change deniers. Murray called global warming an "elitists' ill-conceived 'global goofiness' campaigns" in a 2007 speech to the New York Coal Trade Association. Murray also used a horrific collapse at a Utah mine that his company owned as yet another occasion to rail against attempts to regulate global warming.

Murray has personally lobbied against coal ash and air quality rules. Via the Washington Post, here's what Murray wrote to Congress about EPA Clean Air Act rules earlier this year:

"Jobs and lives are being destroyed by Mr. Obama and his out-of-control, radical U.S. EPA and his appointees to it," chairman and chief executive Robert E. Murray wrote. He concluded: "America, our industry and jobs, are under siege by Mr. Obama and his U.S. EPA."

Meanwhile, Murray's company has had at least seven coal slurry spills in the past decade from a single site. The company also wracked up 7,747 "significant" health and safety violations at their mines between 2000 and 2009, totaling more than $18 million in fines.

As Politico reported earlier this month, Murray is asking for contributions of $2,500 per guest for Perry's campaign chest.

Bachmann, Plunging in Polls, Touts Iowa Momentum

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 4:48 PM EDT

Rep. Michele Bachmann has plunged in the polls since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the GOP presidential race in July. Prior to that, polls had consistently shown the Minnesota congresswoman in the lead in the critical early primary state of Iowa. More recently she received just 40 votes in the Florida straw poll, earning her dead last. All of which made her fundraising pitch this morning all the more off-key:

Our campaign's rising poll numbers have not gone unnoticed. The latest Iowa poll has our campaign in second place, just behind Mitt Romney and ahead of Rick Perry.

As you saw yesterday in our campaign's strategy video- Iowa is what it all comes down to. Iowa is where our campaign began, and it is where we will win next year. We have our boots on the ground in Iowa, and I know we are in a position to win, but Tim, we cannot do so without your support.

OK, so it's not as big a deal as repeating dangerous and debunked claims about vaccines, but it's worth noting that this is sort of the opposite of the current state of play. Bachmann is in second place in Iowa according to one poll released this week. But the overall trend lines are pretty bad. For instance, here's a (somewhat difficult to read) chart from Real Clear Politics averaging the national tracking polls. The black line is Michele Bachmann, and, as you can see, it's plummeting faster than [insert Red Sox joke here]. Rick Perry is in blue; Mitt Romney's purple:

12-month polling average of GOP field: Courtesy of Real Clear Politics12-month polling average of GOP field: Courtesy of Real Clear Politics

Maybe Bachmann was referring to Romney?

Independent, Kick-Ass Journalism—Now More than Ever

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 3:42 PM EDT

The political divide in Washington is as nasty as I've ever seen it. The tea party-pandering Republican Party has brought the nation's capital to a standstill—and nearly pushed the nation into another financial crisis. With the nation facing a series of challenges—a stalled economy, flat (or falling) incomes for those in the middle or the bottom, a troubled education system, out-of-date infrastructure—there seems little chance the political system can produce policies that address these serious problems. But the tea party types and their conservative corporate backers don't mind. They're rooting for gridlock that gums up and discredits the government.

And, as ugly as things are right now, they could get worse. In this coming election year, special interests will be flooding the political system with anonymous contributions to make sure their allies gain even more power in Washington. And what we—those of us who do the kick-ass journalism at Mother Jones and those of you who read it, support it, and pass it on—have to do is expose these naked attempts to hijack the nation's politics and government.

We need to raise $75,000 to pay for investigative reporters in our DC bureau who will expose these corrupt politicians and their anonymous corporate backers. Will you help us out? Even $5 or $10 will make a big difference. Please donate today.

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