Mojo - October 2011

DOJ Shows Sudden Interest in Undisclosed Foreign Lobbying

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 11:00 AM PDT
Attorney General Eric Holder

In recent months, the Justice Department has shown a new fervor for enforcing the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires any group trying to influence US policy on behalf of a foreign government, political interest, or company that's majority-owned by a foreign power, to register with the agency. FARA doesn't apply to good old, influence-buying lobbying. The law, instead, concerns activities that would typically be designated as public relations or strategic consulting work.

This year alone, over two dozen law firms, PR shops, and tourism offices have retroactively filed paperwork with the DOJ's FARA unit, detailing work they completed years ago—likely in response to the DOJ peppering them with audits, The Hill's Kevin Bogardus reports:

"The FARA unit appears to have increased the number of routine audits, the number of routine notices regarding missing and late filings," said Joe Sandler of Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb. "It seems to me that they have been a little bit more diligent in looking into firms that should have filed but haven't."

Others who advise clients on the foreign lobbying law agree that enforcement has increased...

In an update sent to clients last week, Covington & Burling said it seems that Justice "is continuing to expand its enforcement activities of this often-overlooked statute, this time targeting those that the department believes should have registered under the statute for doing work on behalf of a foreign entity."

The FARA unit's awesome weapon of vigilance:

Covington’s memo said Justice will typically "cite news articles or other public information that appears to suggest a connection between the letter’s target and an entity abroad."

[Covington attorney Rob Kelner] said a "wave of audits" under FARA began about two years ago.

"No one who I talk to had seen a FARA audit in many, many years," Kelner said.

Since 1966, there hasn't been a single successful criminal prosecution under FARA, and only 3 indictments charging FARA violations—which means that the flurry of activity in 2011 is somewhat unprecedented.

In March, Mother Jones reported that work done for the Qaddafi regime in Libya by the Boston-based Monitor group—a consulting firm founded by a group of Harvard academics and business professors—may have run afoul of FARA. Spoiler alert: It did. In May, Monitor retroactively registered for the $1.65 million worth of work it did in Libya, following an internal investigation. And in July, the DOJ alleged that two Pakistani-Americans had spent the past two decades working as agents of Pakistan's intelligence service without registering under FARA.

So why all the fuss, and why now? One theory: That Justice views FARA as the tip of the spear in rooting out groups actively helping the Qaddafis, ISIs, and Syrias of the world. In the Monitor instance, for example, the alleged FARA rule-breakers actively worked as boosters for the Qaddafi regime, writing favorable essays and op-eds for prominent Western publications while frequently failing to disclose their Monitor Group ties. But the DOJ unit had several years to turn the heat up on Monitor, and didn't.

The more likely story is that high profile cases like Monitor have highlighted the fact that firms are skirting the law. Now that they're being pressured to file, will these firms now have to weigh more carefully whether they'll take on lucrative but controversial clients?

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Texas Store Refuses to Sell Guns to Muslims, Socialists

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 10:28 AM PDT

Mason County, Texas, is notable mostly for being the only place in the United States to have a piece of public art inspired by the book Old Yeller. It's also home to Keller's Riverside Store, a general store owned by one Crockett Keller, who recently cut a radio ad announcing that his store would refuse to offer training lessons to Muslims and Obama supporters.

Here's the offending ad, which has prompted an investigation from the Texas Department of Public Safety:

"If you are a socialist liberal and/or voted for the current campaigner-in-chief, please do not take this class. You have already proven that you cannot make a knowledgeable and prudent decision as required under the law. Also, if you are a non-Christian Arab or Muslim, I will not teach you the class. Once again, with no shame, I am Crockett Keller. Thank you and God bless America."

I can accept the premise that Crockett Keller might have some sort of prejudice against Muslims, because Islamophobia is pretty widespread in the United States. But non-Muslim, non-Christian Arabs? Who exactly is he referring to—the Druze?

California Cuts Medicaid Payments to Doctors

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 10:05 AM PDT

The federal government has given California permission to cut its payments to physicians treating Medicaid patients by 10 percent.

Says Cindy Mann, deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the action gives California the flexibility it had requested to address its budget shortfall. "We know that the reductions that are being approved today will have significant impact on affected providers, and we regret the very difficult budget circumstances that have led to their implementation," she said.

Due to the partnership between the federal and state governments which funds state Medicaid programs, states are not permitted to make major changes without approval from the Department of Health & Human Services.

California already spends less per Medicaid beneficiary than any state in the nation, resulting in approximately 50 percent of California physicians currently refusing to see lower income patients due to insufficient payment rates from the state's safety net program. The further cuts, which will save the state some $673 million dollars, is likely to reduce that number dramatically, resulting in a severe decrease in medical care availability to the state's poor.

US Drone Warfare: Ethiopia Edition

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 9:30 AM PDT

It's official: another half-acre, multi-million-dollar US drone base has been confirmed, this one on Ethiopian soil. The Washington Post reports:

The Air Force has been secretly flying armed Reaper drones on counterterrorism missions from a remote civilian airport in southern Ethi­o­pia as part of a rapidly expanding U.S.-led proxy war against an al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa [al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia], U.S. military officials said...The Air Force confirmed Thursday that drone operations are underway at the Arba Minch airport. Master Sgt. James Fisher, a spokesman for the 17th Air Force, which oversees operations in Africa, said that an unspecified number of Air Force personnel ­are working at the Ethio­pian airfield "to provide operation and technical support for our security assistance programs."

The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, Fisher said. He said the drone flights "will continue as long as the government of Ethi­o­pia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs."

Though the Post story emphasizes elements like the drones' "Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs," BBC News reports that, although the aircraft can be fitted with such firepower, American officials speaking to the BBC on Friday "stressed that the remotely-piloted drones were being used only for surveillance, and not for air strikes" and that the Reaper drones were flying unarmed "because their use is considered sensitive by Ethiopia's government." (According to Tesfaye Yilma, the head of public diplomacy for the Ethiopian embassy in DC, it's their explicit policy not to "entertain foreign military bases in Ethi­o­pia.")

Just last month the Post published a run-down of the Obama administration's growing "constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations" in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, aimed at eliminating key Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia. The United States has already conducted lethal drone strikes in at least six countries since 2004, including Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as the military's reliance on this supposedly "low-risk" form of war is only ballooning.

Elizabeth Warren's Volunteer Army

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 7:15 AM PDT
Volunteers at a organizational meeting for Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren

Nick Baumann flagged this photo that Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren snapped at a campaign event at Framingham State College on Tuesday evening. It is, as he notes, somewhat unusual for a candidate to draw that kind of crowd on a weeknight, one month into a race that's still a year away from being decided. But that's actually been the norm for Warren, who despite being a first-time candidate has rolled out an impressive volunteer operation in the Bay State for her campaign against Republican Sen. Scott Brown. Warren's big crowds are all the more noteworthy given that she's only running for the seat because of the shortcomings of the last nominee, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

In addition to 300 people at the event in Framingham, Warren drew another 100 on Wednesday night at a union hall in Springfield. And at 7:30 on Thursday morning, about 100 supporters filled the rec room at the Scandinavian Living Center in West Newton for a joint appearance with Newton mayor Setti Warren (who dropped out of the race almost as soon the other Warren—no relation—entered it). For progressives still scarred by the Coakley collapse, Warren's emergence has been cathartic.

"When I woke up this morning and I saw it was raining, I thought, 'I hope she doesn't cancel!" said Barbara Darnell of Newton, a nod to Coakley's famous declaration that she didn't want to campaign outside in the cold. "She's just gotta get out there." And she's glad the candidate showed up: Warren answered Darnell's question about the middle class (she's in favor of it) and won her over with her brief remarks.

Flier to OWS Protesters: "Defending Against Tear Gas"

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 6:30 AM PDT

"Maalox is a must." That's one of the many tips to be found in "Defending Against Tear Gas," a fascinating flier making the rounds on the internet today (and shown in full below—click to embiggen), that instructs Occupy protesters on how to protect themselves when The Man breaks out the CS canisters for crowd dispersal. As some cops and local governments get physical in their dealings with occupiers, the flier's info could prove vital to minimizing chaos and injuries. It also shows how information-sharing among the protesters and their sympathizers is spreading organically at a rapid clip.

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OWS Beats The Tea Party—In Google Searches

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 3:48 AM PDT

Tea party activists have been very adamant that their movement, which started with spontaneous public protests in 2009, has nothing at all in common with Occupy Wall Street. Tea partiers insist that OWS doesn't really speak for regular Americans—the way they say their movement does. But now comes data, albeit rather unscientific, that offers evidence that Americans are much more interested in OWS than they ever were in the tea party.

The Google Politics and Elections team has teased out some comparisons between tea party-related Google searches and OWS searches to see which group had more demand at their peaks. The results? "Occupy Wall Street" has been a far more popular search term than "tea party."

Google Politics and ElectionsGoogle Politics and Elections

 

The Google team also looked at the volume of media coverage for each movement. By that measure, OWS isn't quite keeping up.

They write:

Despite big leads in polls and search traffic for Occupy Wall Street, it is almost in a dead heat with the Tea Party for the volume of news coverage. Using Advanced Search in Google News we found that between October 7 and last week, Occupy Wall Street only barely bests the Tea Party when we examine the number of news pieces covering each movement: 29,000 to 22,000.

Other interesting takeaways from the Google search crunching: Searches for "tea party" peak each year around tax time and then peter out again. And while New York would seem like the obvious hot spot for people searching for OWS news, the state actually ranks third in OWS searches, behind Vermont and Oregon.

The Google search numbers dovetail with public opinion polls showing that OWS is twice as popular with regular Americans than the tea party. They may also reinforce what the tea partiers have been saying all along: the two groups have nothing in common.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 28, 2011

Fri Oct. 28, 2011 2:57 AM PDT

Abigail Castro, 21 months, clings to her dad, Spc. Kory Castro, following his return to Fort Riley, Kan., October 21, 2011. Spc. Castro, assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, was one of more than 250 1st Infantry Division Soldiers who returned from a 12 month deployment to Iraq as part of the Dagger brigade's first "main body" flight. The remainder of the brigade's 3,000 Soldiers will return to Fort Riley throughout the next several weeks. Photo by Mollie Miller, 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs.

Oakland Police Under a Cloud for Violent Occupy Crackdown

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 8:49 PM PDT

As Iraq war vet Scott Olsen awaits surgery in an Oakland hospital, Mayor Jean Quan and the Oakland Police Department are under a cloud for their aggressive crackdown against #OccupyOakland on Tuesday night. Olsen was struck in the head by a projectile fired by police then in a violent clash with protesters. Precisely what struck him remains unclear, but the Guardian reported yesterday that a photographer documenting Olsen's injury went back to the scene and found a bean-bag round next to the bloody spot where Olsen went down.

Questions are swirling as to whether Oakland police used excessive force and violated the department's own crowd-control policy. The OPD denies that Oakland officers used flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets against the crowd, despite allegations to the contrary. (OPD spokespeople suggested that other law enforcement agencies may have used them.) Interim police chief Howard Jordan has admitted to the use of tear gas and bean bags, saying his officers used them as a defense against bottles, rocks, and paint thrown by angry protesters.

On Tuesday night I was at the intersection of 14th and Broadway, just outside Frank Ogawa Plaza, for several harrowing hours: I witnessed police officers firing projectiles indiscriminately into the crowd—not carefully targeting instigators, as OPD policy dictates. Freelance reporter Angela Bacca, who was also there, told me that upon arriving she "got tear gassed almost immediately," and then saw police fire bean-bag rounds at a woman carrying water to demonstrators to help them rinse tear gas out of their eyes and off their clothes. "They were just shooting at people trying to get them out of the way," Bacca said. "I definitely thought it was unprovoked." The OPD has not responded to requests from Mother Jones by phone and email for comment.

According to the OPD's policy, projectile bean bags can only be used narrowly and not for general crowd control:

Less lethal specialty impact weapons that are designed to be direct fired at a specific target ("Direct Fired SIM") including but not limited to flexible batons ("bean bags"), shall not be used for crowd management, crowd control or crowd dispersal during demonstrations or crowd events. (PDF)

The OPD policy spells out three specific circumstances in which bean bags can be fired on people: "against a specific individual who is engaging in conduct that poses an immediate threat of loss of life or serious bodily injury to themselves, officers or the general public when other means of arrest are unsafe," or "who is engaging in substantial destruction of property which creates an imminent risk to the lives or safety of other persons," and only "when the individual can be targeted without endangering other crowd members or bystanders." 

TKTK: Schuyler Erle/TwitterA shot-filled bean-bag round held by a protester at Frank Ogawa Plaza Tuesday night. Schuyler Erle/TwitterThis isn't the first time the Oakland Police Department has been accused of excessive force. After demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Oakland in June to protest the death of Oscar Grant, the young black man shot and killed by a BART transit officer in 2009, the National Lawyers Guild filed a lawsuit accusing Oakland police of violating its crowd-control policy. The Guild put a statement on its Web site Wednesday condemning the use of force by OPD during Tuesday's clash, and said the department may have violated the same policy by deploying bean-bag rounds that night.

Mayor Quan has promised an investigation into police misconduct and expressed her "deepest concern for all of those who were injured." On Wednesday she made her first public appearance since returning from a trip to Washington, DC, where she said she wanted to "prevent last night's events from happening again" and announced plans to visit the plaza Thursday night in an attempt to smooth relations.

Joseph Carter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is organizing media interviews on Scott Olsen's behalf, told me police investigators have spoken with a handful of eyewitnesses about Olsen's injury, but says the department has yet to reach out to Olsen's family. There is no word from the OPD on when its investigation will be completed. 

Exclusive Video: Behind the Barricades at Occupy Oakland

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 7:30 PM PDT

A day after police fired tear gas and projectiles at Occupy Oakland protestors, I turned my camera on those who gathered again at Frank Ogawa plaza. For more of our Occupy Wall Street coverage, click here.

Additional photo and video credits: thomashawk/Flickr; O'Halloran, Thomas J. and Leffler, Warren K./US News and World Report/Wikimedia; JacobRuff/Wikimedia Commons; Keoki Seu/Flickr; /YouTube; Ella Baker Center/Flickr