Mojo - December 2011

Defeating the Point of Fact-Checking

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 5:03 PM EST
Rep. Paul Ryan at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference.

Fact-checking, as a genre, probably shouldn't exist. It does largely because of one of the weirder conventions of mainstream journalism, which is to give equal weight to competing claims regardless of whether or not they actually deserve it. Determining the truth or falsity of a given claim is of a lower priority than actually meeting a deadline.

The purpose of fact-checking websites like PolitiFact, then, is to solve an invented problem by focusing on facts rather than "balance," since a commitment to the latter can be easily manipulated in the service of spreading falsehoods. For the past two years, PolitiFact chose as its "Lie of the Year" two Republican talking points. In 2009 the "Lie of the Year" was Sarah Palin's whopper that the Affordable Care Act contained "death panels" that would decide whether people lived or died based on "levels of productivity." The 2010 "Lie of the Year" was that the ACA constituted a government takeover of health care (it actually preserves the private insurance system).

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Report: Gingrich Banks $42K Selling Email List to Campaign

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 4:10 PM EST

This much we know about Newt Gingrich: he has a long, distinguished history of breaking the rules. For reference, see Tim Murphy's invaluable breakdown of the Republican presidential hopeful's ethically challenged history. The timeline culminates in 1997, when the House ethics committee slapped a $300,000 fine on the former speaker for his "reckless" or "intentional" use of nonprofits for partisan political ends, while misleading the House about his relationship to a political action committee.

But there could soon be an unsavory new bullet to add to the list. On Monday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that Gingrich's campaign bought his highly lucrative mailing list for $42,000 during the third quarter of 2011—from Gingrich himself. And that payment wasn't noted on recent FEC disclosures, the Washington Post reports:

Minor Charges For Alleged Hezbollah Agent In Iraq

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 3:51 PM EST
U.S. Army Spc. Justin Towe scans his area while on a mission with Iraqi army soldiers from 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division in Al Muradia village, Iraq, March, 13, 2007.

Last week the Obama administration announced that the Iraqi government would not be handing over Ali Mussa Daqduq—who is accused of masterminding an attack that killed several US servicemembers in Iraq and of being a member of Hezbollah—to the US for trial by a military commission. The attack involved Daqduq and associates allegedly fooling American servicemembers with false uniforms and ID cards, which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Republicans like Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) accused Obama of "once again completely abdicating its responsibility to hold on to deadly terrorists." As with the Iraq withdrawal itself, Obama's Republican critics seem to be operating on the assumption that the US can simply go ahead and violate Iraq's sovereignty without causing any adverse consequences. 

The fear was that Daqduq would be released by the Iraqi government, but it appears he'll instead be charged with a minor offense associated with his passport. At Lawfare, Robert Chesney writes that they're "plenty of blame to go around" for this outcome, but I'd argue that this line in the Associated Press report Chesney links to explains who is really at fault:

Under former President George W. Bush, prosecutors had planned to charge Daqduq in a U.S. criminal court. But those plans were scrapped after President Barack Obama took office and lawmakers began restricting his ability to bring terrorist suspects into the United States for trial.

There's no guarantee that the Iraqi government would have turned him over if he had been promised a federal trial, but National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the New York Times that "a transfer to Gitmo was a non-starter for the Iraqi government." If Daqduq is indeed guilty, the fact that he will not be punished is in part the result of Republicans' arbitrary politicization of terrorism trials and the Obama administration's meek acquiescence to them doing so. The consequences to individual rights and liberty here in the United States have been terrible, but the same is true of efforts to hold terrorists responsible for their crimes

*This post has been edited from its original version.

I Guess Posting Videos Online Can Make You a Terrorist

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 3:14 PM EST

Tarek Mehanna, the Boston native who was accused of material support for terrorism based on what prosecutors said was his online advocacy on behalf of al Qaeda, was found guilty on all counts Monday

Defense lawyers argued that Mehanna did not provide support to Al Qaeda. They said he was simply expressing his own views in opposition to US foreign policy, particularly to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, activity that was protected by the First Amendment.

They also called Mehanna a budding young scholar committed to his religion, saying he had traveled to Yemen in search of education -- to further his studies on Islamic law and on Arabic.

But a series of Mehanna’s former friends testified against him that he had promoted extreme ideology, endorsed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and once called Osama bin Laden his father. Together, the former friends said, they watched videos glorifying suicide bombings in Iraq.

The verdict could turn out to be significant because Mehanna was not only accused of lying to prosecutors and seeking terrorist training in Yemen—prosecutors also charged that his translating of Al Qaeda documents and posting of extremist Internet videos was meant to sway Westerners to Al Qaeda's cause, and therefore constituted material support for terrorism.

In the indictment, the authorities alleged that Mehanna responded to specific requests from individuals associated with Al Qaeda to translate and post materials. Prosecutors don't seem to have raised that allegation at trial. Instead, they focused on the argument that Mehanna was responding to a general call made by Al Qaeda to spread their ideology. The distinction is important because, as I reported in my piece last week, the Supreme Court recently ruled that even nonviolent activities, if performed at the direction or under the control of a terrorist organization, could be crimes. Before, speech could only be a crime if it is both meant to and could credibly lead to "imminent lawless action."

My personal view is that the prosecution's other charges were strong already and Mehanna was likely guilty of those. However, by convicting Mehanna of material support for terrorism based on his online activities, the prosecution may have established a path through which the government can throw people in prison on terrorism charges for expressing abhorrent opinions, even if the individual in question has no direct ties to a terrorist organization.

For government authorities increasingly worried about the growth of the English-speaking extremist community and the possibility of homegrown terror, the Mehanna conviction may provide what is, in their view, a salutory chilling effect. For civil libertarians concerned about the government being able to prosecute ugly speech as a crime, that chilling effect is anything but salutory, because it could end up curtailing the rights of other critics of the US government, not just those who commit crimes based on their beliefs. It's hard to escape the conclusion that at some level the US government is now in the business of policing which views are appropriate to express. 

Mitt Romney: Super-PACs Are a "Disaster"

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 12:29 PM EST

Mitt Romney is biting the hand that feeds him. On MSNBC's Morning Joe on Tuesday, Romney railed against so-called super-PACs, the relatively new breed of political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. He called super-PACs a "disaster" and said, "We really ought to let campaigns raise the money they need and just get rid of these super-PACs."

That's quite a statement from a candidate who's benefited greatly from the rise of super-PACs. Restore Our Future, a super-PAC aligned with the Romney campaign and run by Romney 2008 aides, announced earlier this month plans to spend $3.1 million on TV time in Iowa to boost Romney's standing there. The blitz appears to be helping: recent polls show Romney's popularity inching upward. Restore Our Future, meanwhile, has plenty more gas in the tank; having raised $12.2 million as of June 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Romney's hardly the one to benefit from super-PACs backing a specific candidate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Newt Gingrich, and even former US Sen. Rick Santorum have super-PACs fundraising and spending on their behalf.

Fred Wertheimer, a veteran campaign finance reform advocate at Democracy 21, says super-PACs "are a dangerous fraud on the American people…designed to launder into a candidate's campaign the very kind of unlimited contributions that the campaign finance laws have long prohibited candidates from receiving because they are corrupting."

Here's the video of Romney denouncing super-PACs:

Michele Bachmann: The Candidate From Foursquare

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Martin Luther's acolytes had the printing press. The Velvet Revolution had rock-and-roll radio stations. The Arab Spring had Facebook. Michele Bachmann's long-shot quest for a second American Revolution has Foursquare. Well, it's something anyway.

Bachmann won't win the Republican nomination, but her campaign is on the upswing in Iowa, where the latest Public Policy poll has her breaking double digits for the first time in months. Last week, she kicked off a 99-county bus tour, to visit every corner of the state, and she seems to think she might actually have an outside shot at winning the caucuses. The days when she had to yell frantically at debate moderators to get a little face time have passed, at least for now. What's her secret? It's the world's most perplexing social media platform this side of Ping.

There she was, at the Thirsty Dog in Manly on Sunday evening. Four minutes earlier, if Foursquare can be trusted (and I would suggest to you that it must, it simply must) she was at the Prime and Wine in Mason City. That followed a stop at Shooterz Bar in Forest City (try the meatloaf), and successive appearances at Pizza Ranch franchises in Garner and Clarion. She started the day by checking in at Harvest Baptist Church in Fort Dodge (with two others). On Saturday, it was much of the same: Pizza Hut in Ida Grove (where she unlocked the "Bender" badge for checking in for the fourth consecutive night)—and three more Pizza Ranches, in Rockwell City, Pocahontas, and Emmetsburg.

Oh, and the compulsory visit to Cronk's in Denison, where this happened:

She held off on tweeting about it, at least. On Friday she as at Hey, Good Cookies in Spirit Lake, Cool Beans coffee shop in Estherville, and—noticing a trend here—Pizza Ranch in Sibley.

So what does this all mean? Michele Bachmann goes to a lot of pizza places: In Garner, she unlocked the Level 2 Pizzaiolo badge; as I'm writing this, she's just checked into the Princess Grill and Pizzeria in Iowa Falls, and she'll have stops later on Monday at Pizza Ranches in Charles City and Waverly. But there's a method to all of it. As Kerry Howley reported in March, Pizza Ranch holds a unique place in Iowa politics. When Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008, he did it by hitting all 69 franchises in the state. Social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats (of marriage pledge fame) has used the buffet-style chain as a staging ground for his own campaigns. It's a way of microtargeting the predominantly old, predominantly evangelical voters who will decide the results on January 3.

Of course, the senior citizens who hang out at Pizza Ranch to listen to Michele Bachmann talk about Alfred Kinsey are also, generally speaking, not the sort to unlock the oversharing badge on Foursquare. Which just goes to show you that while candidates have more social media tools at their disposal than ever before, they're still not entirely sure what to do with them. That is, unless Bachmann becomes Mayor of the Iowa caucuses.

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Your Daily Newt: A $40 Billion Entitlement for Laptops

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Dan Herrick/ZumaPressDan Herrick/ZumaPressAs a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

After being sworn in as Speaker of the House in 1995 on a promise to tear down the welfare state, Newt Gingrich needed just one day to propose a new, $40 billion entitlement program to allow poor Americans to buy laptops. As he told the House Ways and Means Committee:

I'll give you a nutty idea that I'm just tossing out because I want to start getting you to think beyond the norm. Maybe we need a tax credit for the poorest Americans to buy a laptop. Now, maybe that's wrong, maybe it's expensive, maybe we can't do it. But I'll tell you, any signal we can send to the poorest Americans that says "We're going into the 21st century, third-wave information age, and so are you, and we want to carry you with us," begins to change the game.

It was not the first time he'd floated the concept. Elizabeth Drew reported that Gingrich had "made a similar proposal several years [earlier], to an executive of a major technology company, and had been told it wasn't feasible." And in his 1984 book Window of Opportunity, Gingrich had heralded France's move to put a telephone in every house as "an investment in the future and one which may make France the leading information-processing society in the world by the end of the century."

Because poor Americans don't pay income taxes, though, the tax credit wouldn't do much good—unless it was a refundable tax credit, in which case it would basically be an entitlement by another name. (It was also a bit incongruous to propose giving away laptops while simultaneously trying to eliminate food stamps, but we all have our indiosyncrasies.) The Speaker backtracked shortly thereafter. As Michael Kinsley put it in the New Yorker:

Gingrich conceded that the laptop tax-credit idea was not merely "nutty" but "dumb" and added, "I shouldn't have said it." He even revealed that he had called up George Will to apologize—apparently what one does in such circumstances—though he did not reveal whether Will had given him absolution.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 20, 2011

Tue Dec. 20, 2011 6:57 AM EST

Sgt. 1st Class Eteru Ane, of Pago Pago, American Samoa, is backlit by the setting sun as he heads toward the last station of the day, an uphill Hummvee push, during Task Force Attack's (1-227th AV) winter spur ride on December 7, 2011 at Forward Operating Base Sharana, Afghanistan. More than 40 troopers tested their skills to become members of "The Order of the Spur" and earn the right to wear silver cavalry spurs. Photo by the US Army.

Occupy's Next Target: The Iowa Caucus

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 6:48 PM EST

On October 22, more than 100 Occupy Iowa activists gathered outside President Obama's campaign headquarters in Des Moines to protest his failure to stand up for the 99 percent. That same day, John Stauber, the founder of the corporate watchdog Center for Media and Democracy, suggested in a Truthout op-ed that the protest could be the start of something bigger. "In Iowa an Occupy Obama movement has real potential because it could choose to become a player in the Iowa caucuses in a way that is much more than symbolic," he wrote. "Occupy Obama activists could show up at the caucus meetings in January, for instance, and organize support for an Uncommitted slate of Occupy Obama convention activists." In other words, determined occupiers could inject some unexpected turbulence into Obama's glide path toward being named the Democratic nominee.

A group of Occupy Iowa organizers has adopted that very idea and has expanded it to include both parties' caucuses on Tuesday, January 3. According to Drew Veysey, a 24-year-old Iowa native who is promoting Occupy Iowa Caucus, the goal is to elect members of this "informal Occupy Wall Street faction" as uncommitted delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions next year.

An active member of Occupy DC who recently returned to the Hawkeye State, Veysey explains that Occupy Iowa Caucus "does not disrupt the system but uses the system against itself, because the system itself is wrong. It is not democratic. It is not representative of the people's wishes. If the system were representative of people's wishes, there would be no Occupy movement because it would not be necessary." He adds, "I realize it is a long shot. But we feel we have to try. There is almost nothing to lose."

The Weirdest Thing About the North Korea Succession

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 9:02 AM EST
Same as the old bosses.

With the death of Kim Jong Il, questions regarding succession and the North Korean power structure are front and center. It's been nearly three years since Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il's third son, was nominated to succeed his father. On Monday, North Korea's state media referred to Kim Jong Un as the "Great Successor," and called on the people to "faithfully revere" the 20-something, Swiss-educated heir apparent who would guide them in changing "sadness to strength and courage [to] overcome [the day's] difficulties."

Kim Jong Un is the late dictator's youngest son. For a terse primer on why Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son, is not a shoo-in to become the next Supreme Leader, read the last lines of the AP obituary that ran Sunday night:

His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 38, is believed to have fallen out of favor with his father after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001 saying he wanted to visit Disney's Tokyo resort. His two other sons by another woman, Kim Jong Chul and Kim Jong Un, are in their 20s. Their mother reportedly died several years ago.

Until this incident at what is now Narita International Airport, the older sibling had been expected to take the reins following Kim Jong Il's death. In the years since the 2001 micro-scandal, Kim Jong Nam has openly admitted that he is "not interested in the politics" of his country, and has immersed himself in a cushy lifestyle with two wives, a mistress, and a few kids stashed away in mainland China. It's funny to think that this despot-kin-turned-full-time-playboy (those are fairly typical of oppressive regimes) blew his chances at the big title because he wanted to lounge around a Disney tourist trap in Japan. (The faux pas seems even sillier when you factor in just how sensitive North Koreans are about anything involving the Japanese, seeing as how they haven't even started to get over the whole 35-years-of-brutal-occupation thing.)

So you can sort of thank the combined efforts of Mickey Mouse and 20th-century Japanese imperialism for ensuring the rise to power of Kim Jong Un. And thus a grad-student-aged, binge-drinking, 200-pound Kobe Bryant fan who reportedly has issues with hypertension and diabetes will likely become the next ruler of a nuclear-armed state that has one of the most appalling human rights records in the world today.

The more you learn about North Korea's totalitarian ruling family, the more they come off like a sick cross between The Godfather, Arrested Development, and certain scenes in Zoolander.