Stephen Colbert has his opening. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the tea party icon, announced Thursday that he will retire from the US Senate in January, leaving Republican Gov. Nikki Haley the task of handpicking DeMint's immediate successor. A Colbert for Senate Twitter account, @ColbertforSC, sprung up almost immediately, and fans have called for Colbert, the author of such classics as I Am America (And So Can You!) and America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't, to replace DeMint in the hallowed halls of Congress.

Brace yourselves, Colbert Report fans: Colbert, who has made no secret of his desire to hold higher office, says through his publicist that he's ready and willing to step up for his home state. "Stephen is honored by the groundswell of support from the Palmetto State and looks forward to Governor Haley's call," his personal publicist, Carrie Byalick, writes in an email to Mother Jones.

Colbert first tried to run for president in 2007, and then again in 2012, when he boisterously announced his candidacy for the "United States of South Carolina." In between those failed campaigns, Colbert started his own super-PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and his own dark-money nonprofit, Colbert Super-PAC SHH!. In all seriousness, his money-in-politics skits lampooned the ragged state of campaign finance regulation better than anyone. He bagged a Peabody award for his skewering of the state of political money today. 

Offshore tax havens—like the ones Mitt Romney has relied on—screw the federal treasury out of some $150 billion a year, but as Congress and the president haggle over where to scrimp and save, there's been nary a mention of this potential deficit-busting gold mine. Today, the consumer group USPIRG released a report detailing what we could do with all that cash.

At least 83 of the top 100 publicly traded corporations in America shield large chunks of their income from taxes by keeping it overseas, according to the Government Accountability Office. In fact, according to the USPIRG report, 30 of the nation's biggest, richest companies actually profited off the tax code between 2008 and 2010, by avoiding taxes and getting tax refunds from the government. USPIRG notes that one of the techniques Google used to save $3.1 billion over that time period is called "double Irish," and involves two Irish subsidiaries and one in the tax haven Bermuda.

A cratering charge detonates when Marines assigned to Engineer Detachment, Combat Logistics Battalion 15, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted a controlled detonation exercise at a live-fire range near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, during a routine training exercise, Nov. 25.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Timothy R. Childers.

 This morning I received a press release with this announcement:

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy will give Elliott Abrams, CFR's senior fellow for Middle East Studies, its Scholar-Statesman Award at a dinner in New York City tonight. The Scholar-Statesman Award celebrates leaders who exemplify the idea that sound scholarship and a discerning knowledge of history are essential to effective policy, as well as the advancement of peace and security in the Middle East.

I nearly choked. Why? The easiest way to explain is for me to crib and post here an article I wrote for The Nation over a decade ago:

"How would you feel if your wife and children were brutally raped before being hacked to death by soldiers during a military massacre of 800 civilians, and then two governments tried to cover up the killings?" It's a question that won't be asked of Elliott Abrams at a Senate confirmation hearing because George W. Bush, according to press reports, may appoint Abrams to a National Security Council staff position that (conveniently!) does not require Senate approval. Moreover, this query is one of a host of rude, but warranted, questions that could be lobbed at Abrams, the Iran/contra player who was an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years and a shaper of that Administration's controversial—and deadly—policies on Latin America and human rights. His designated spot in the new regime: NSC's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. (At press time, the White House and Abrams were neither confirming nor denying his return to government.)

Bush the Second has tapped a number of Reagan/Bush alums who were involved in Iran/contra business for plum jobs: Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Otto Reich and John Negroponte. But Abrams's appointment—should it come to pass—would mark the most generous of rehabilitations. Not only did Abrams plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration's contra program, he was also one of the fiercest ideological pugilists of the 1980s, a bad-boy diplomat wildly out of sync with Bush's gonna-change-the-tone rhetoric. Abrams, a Democrat turned Republican who married into the cranky Podhoretz neocon clan, billed himself as a "gladiator" for the Reagan Doctrine in Central America—which entailed assisting thuggish regimes and militaries in order to thwart leftist movements and dismissing the human rights violations of Washington's cold war partners.

One Abrams specialty was massacre denial. During a Nightline appearance in 1985, he was asked about reports that the US-funded Salvadoran military had slaughtered civilians at two sites the previous summer. Abrams maintained that no such events had occurred. And had the US Embassy and the State Department conducted an investigation? "My memory," he said, "is that we did, but I don't want to swear to it, because I'd have to go back and look at the cables." But there had been no State Department inquiry; Abrams, in his lawyerly fashion, was being disingenuous. Three years earlier, when two American journalists reported that an elite, US-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in El Mozote, Abrams told Congress that the story was commie propaganda, as he fought for more US aid to El Salvador's military. The massacre, as has since been confirmed, was real. And in 1993 after a UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the Reagan-assisted right-wing military and its death-squad allies, Abrams declared, "The Administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement." Tell that to the survivors of El Mozote.

But it wasn't his lies about mass murder that got Abrams into trouble. After a contra resupply plane was shot down in 1986, Abrams, one of the coordinators of Reagan's pro-contra policy (along with the NSC's Oliver North and the CIA's Alan Fiers), appeared several times before Congressional committees and withheld information on the Administration's connection to the secret and private contra-support network. He also hid from Congress the fact that he had flown to London (using the name "Mr. Kenilworth") to solicit a $10 million contribution for the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. At a subsequent closed-door hearing, Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton blasted Abrams for having misled legislators, noting that Abrams's misrepresentations could lead to "slammer time." Abrams disagreed, saying, "You've heard my testimony." Eagleton cut in: "I've heard it, and I want to puke." On another occasion, Republican Senator Dave Durenberger complained, "I wouldn't trust Elliott any further than I could throw Ollie North." Even after Abrams copped a plea with Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, he refused to concede that he'd done anything untoward. Abrams's Foggy Bottom services were not retained by the First Bush, but he did include Abrams in his lame-duck pardons of several Iran/contra wrongdoers.

Abrams was as nasty a policy warrior as Washington had seen in decades. He called foes "vipers." He said that lawmakers who blocked contra aid would have "blood on their hands"--while he defended US support for a human-rights-abusing government in Guatemala. When Oliver North was campaigning for the Senate in 1994 and was accused of having ignored contra ties to drug dealers, Abrams backed North and claimed "all of us who ran that program...were absolutely dedicated to keeping it completely clean and free of any involvement by drug traffickers." Yet in 1998 the CIA's own inspector general issued a thick report noting that the Reagan Administration had collaborated with suspected drug traffickers while managing the secret contra war.

So Bush the Compassionate may hand the White House portfolio on human rights to the guy who lied and wheedled to aid and protect human-rights abusers. As Adm. William Crowe Jr. said of Abrams in 1989, "This snake's hard to kill."

 Abrams was rehabbed by the foreign policy crowd years ago. But he still has blood on his hands. I wonder what they'll be serving at the dinner. 

The Wall Street Journal broke the news Thursday morning that 61-year-old Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is leaving the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. DeMint could be giving up his Senate post as early as January, leaving South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to appoint someone to fill out his term (cough, Stephen Colbert, cough).

In a Senate packed with off-the-wall conservative lawmakers, DeMint managed to stand out, always promising to top the craziness with…more crazy. As we bid DeMint a fond farewell, let's relive his greatest moments:

1. DeMint says gay people and unmarried women having sex shouldn't teach your children. 

According to the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, DeMint said this at a South Carolina rally: "If someone is openly homosexual, they shouldn't be teaching in the classroom and he holds the same position on an unmarried woman who's sleeping with her boyfriend—she shouldn't be in the classroom."

2. DeMint says God doesn't like big government.

On a radio show in 2011, DeMint said: "I've said it often and I believe it—the bigger government gets, the smaller God gets. As people become more dependent on government, less dependent on God."

3. Jim DeMint doesn't want women talking about abortion on the internet.

In 2011, DeMint put an amendment into a totally unrelated spending bill that attempted to ban discussion of abortion via satellite, video-conferencing, and the internet (in other words, fully preventing women from speaking with their doctors remotely).

4. DeMint says America turning into Iran after President Obama's election (or maybe Germany?).

"Probably the most heart-wrenching experiences I've had over the last several days is when naturalized American citizens who have immigrated here from Germany, Iran, and other countries, they come up to me and they say why are we doing what so many have fled from?" DeMint told a conservative radio host in 2009 "Why don’t Americans see what we're doing?"

5. DeMint puts a hold on National Women's History Museum.

In 2010, a proposed bill would have allowed a private group to buy property on Independence Avenue to build a women's history museum (without costing taxpayers any money). DeMint was one of the bill's chief opponents, and put a hold on it.

6. DeMint confuses Chicago teacher strike with violence in the Middle East.

"On my way over, I was reading another story about a distant place where thugs had put 400,000 children out in the streets. And then I realized that was a story about the Chicago teachers strike," DeMint said at the 2012 Values Voters summit in September. "But we've got to think of good things.”

7. DeMint falsely accuses President Obama of taxing Christmas.

On Fox News in 2011, DeMint said the government was "going to charge taxes on Christmas trees so they can start another government agency to promote Christmas trees. We don't need to do that at the federal level. We can't even afford to do what we're already doing. And to add another tax to something and say we're going to create a promotion agency, it just makes you want to pull your hair out." 

This statement was in response to a division of the Department of Agriculture proposing that tree importers and producers pay 15 cents per tree, to fund a promotional campaign for Christmas. (The tax was tabled.)

The chatter that actress Ashley Judd might make a run for Senate in her home state of Kentucky has prompted preemptive vituperation from the state's Republican delegation. "She's way damn too liberal for our country, for our state," Rand Paul told radio station WMAL on Wednesday. "She hates our biggest industry, which is coal, so I say, good luck bringing the 'I hate coal message' to Kentucky."

Paul also threw in some digs about Judd, an eighth-generation Kentuckian, spending part of her time in her husband's home country, Scotland. And yes, Judd has been a vocal critic of mountain-top removal coal mining. But the comments indicate that Rand Paul doesn't know much about his state's top industries. Mining isn't the state's biggest industry. It's not even in the top ten, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (via James E. Carter IV). It's way down at number 13:

James E. Carter IV/Bureau of Economic AnalysisJames E. Carter IV/Bureau of Economic Analysis

It's all the way down there after "information," oddly enough. Mining is also not the largest industry in the ranking based on the number of people it employs; on that list, it comes in 15th.

OFA data director Ethan Roeder.

Now that the campaign is finally over the non-disclosure agreements are starting to lapse, Obama campaign veterans are starting to come forward to tell their stories of what worked and what didn't. (Sometimes in these very pages.) Today, it's Ethan Roeder's turn. In a New York Times op-ed, the campaign's data director says he's nothing like what you've heard:

I've grown accustomed to reading inaccurate accounts of my day job. I'm in political data.

If I'm not spying on private citizens through the security cam in the parking garage, I’m probably sifting through their garbage for discarded pages from their diaries or deploying billions of spambots to crack into their e-mail. Reading what others muse about my profession is the opposite of my middle-school experience: people with only superficial information about me make a bunch of assumptions to fill in what’s missing and decide that I’m an all-knowing super-genius.

Sadly for me, this is a bunch of malarkey. You may chafe at how much the online world knows about you, but campaigns don’t know anything more about your online behavior than any retailer, news outlet or savvy blogger.

Roeder's right that OFA wasn't digging through confidential records or sifting through dumpsters. But that's also not an allegation I've heard anyone make. Nor is it really the case that the campaign was working with the same set of information that's available to a news outlet or savvy blogger. Detailed donor histories aren't publicly available. Nor are party files, which included notes on caucusing and volunteering and issue preference. And even the savviest of bloggers don't purchase bulk consumer databases. The campaigns are doing more or less what big retailers are doing, but in the eyes of privacy watchdogs, that's kind of the point: As I put it in a piece for the magazine back in September, "In practice, the Obama team isn't doing anything private companies haven't already been doing for a few years. But the scope of its operation represents a major shift for politics—voters expect to be able to obsessively analyze information about the candidates, not the other way around."

There's a lot more in the Times op-ed, and Roeder does a good job of explaining the campaign's real breakthrough—figuring out what to do with all of this data to maximize every interaction it had with voters, donors, and volunteers. Go read his whole piece

"Terror baby" conspiracy theorist, birther conspiracy theorist, and Muslim Brotherhood inflitration conspiracy theorist Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who also said the Aurora shooting happened because we lost Jesus, would like America to make sure the term "lunatic" remains in federal law. He was the lone no vote yesterday on a House bill that ends the use of the outmoded and offensive term, which appears in laws that allow banks to act as a trustee of mentally disabled people's estates.

But Gohmert's nay vote wasn't out of self-interest. As the Washington Post reports, it was due to his sense of civic duty: "To keep spending and not pay the price, that is immoral," Gohmert said. "That's why we shouldn’t eliminate the word 'lunatic.' It really has application around this town...We want to eliminate the word 'lunatic' from the federal code? That's lunacy."

A new flock of drones is taking flight in America's skies, and they are here to help. Really. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a.k.a. drones, are ready to take over jobs that are too dangerous or simply too boring for human pilots. What's holding them back, until 2015 at least, are FAA regulations that bar the commercial use of robot aircraft.

Government agencies and state universities are already using drones in ways that do not include secretly tracking and killing people. Eventually we may have FedEx drones or even personal taco delivery vehicles. But in the meantime, here are eight cool things drones can already do:

Farming: The Japanese have used robo-crop-dusters for decades, but those FAA regulations have kept ag limited to government sponsored projects. That could change when the FAA allows the commercial use of drones in 2015. Farmers and ag programs are gearing up for drones that can monitor the growth of crops as well as the drones like the crop dusters used in Japan. And with the shortage of skilled ag pilots, drones could very well swoop in.

Chasing storms: Since 2007, NASA has owned a pair of Global Hawks, the same UAVs used by the military to spy on foreign countries. Fitted with instruments to monitor clouds, winds, and temperature, the Global Hawks can hang out where few human pilots want to—in the middle of a hurricane. In September, a Global Hawk spent nearly two weeks monitoring the life cycle of the bizarrely long-lived Hurricane/Tropical Storm Nadine. NASA scientists hope to use the drones to glean insights into how hurricanes form, especially now that climate change has made superstorms a more pressing problem. (Check out NASA's website for an interactive view of the Global Hawk—with bonus action music!) 

Photo of Tropical Storm taken from a Global Hawk aircraft. NASA/NOAAPhoto of Tropical Storm Frank taken from a Global Hawk NASA/NOAA

Catching poachers: When you're trying to track poachers across thousands of acres, it helps to have eyes in the sky. The World Wildlife Fund has tested a fleet of small, hand-launched, camera-equipped drones in Nepal. And the WWF just won a $5 million Google grant to implement a drone-based poacher surveillance system in Asia and Africa. 

Watching the environment: The scientists who came up with the WWF drones have already used them to monitor orangutans and deforestation in Indonesia. The US Geological Survey also has a whole office devoted to drone projects. Its aircraft have monitored invasive species in Hawaii, crane migration, and a dam removal in Washington. Most of these projects involved Raven A drones retired from the army.

Going into the danger zone: In the first weeks after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, when radiation levels near the plant were too dangerous for humans, in flew an 18-pound robot called the Honeywell T-Hawk. The T-Hawk sent back videos of stunning devastation. Drones are no stranger to danger. BP has tested quadrotor drones in its oil fields, inspecting rigs while outmaneuvering gas flares that occasionally burst into fireballs.


Looking for trouble: Officers of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office with their Shadowhawk drone. Vanguard Defense IndustriesThe Montgomery County Sheriff's Office's Shadowhawk drone Vanguard Defense Industries Not surprisingly, law enforcement agencies are quite interested in getting their hands on drones. The Customs and Border Protection Agency has been using them for several years. Last year, one of its Predator Bs helped track down cattle thieves in North Dakota, leading to the first drone-assisted arrest in the United States. Last year, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in Texas became one of the first local police departments to buy its own drone. It cost $300,000; compare that to the $3 million price tag for a helicopter. But police drones bring up a whole host of privacy concerns. And safety concerns as well: Montgomery's relatively simple drone crashed into a SWAT team during a photo op.

Protecting human rights: On the flip side, some activists have suggested drones can be used to monitor human rights violations. The cofounders of the Genocide Intervention Network have argued that drones should be used by human rights organizations to document violence in Syria, where the government has tried to silence journalists with targeted killings

Journalism: Old-school newsgathering was based on shoe-leather reporting; are drones the future of journalism? Matt Waite of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln thinks so. The lab has used footage shot by drones to report on the Midwestern drought, and a drone has documented protests in Poland. But drone journalism remains legally dicey, at least until the federal ban on commercial drones is lifted in 2015. The FAA investigated The Daily in 2011 for flying a drone over natural disasters in Alabama and North Dakota. But journalists can still dream about having the ability to grab scoops from above.

Well, anybody got a spare drone we can use?

Spice "herbal incense": Not for human consumption (wink wink)

Yesterday, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published a "first-of-its-kind report" finding that synthetic marijuana, commonly sold as "herbal incense" with names like K2 and Spice, was linked to more than 11,400 drug-related hospitalizations in 2010. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who'd spearheaded a recent bill banning chemicals used to make fake pot, quickly responded to the news with a statement: "This report underscores that a federal ban was right to protect public safety…Still, cynical manufacturers are evading the federal ban by altering chemicals or ignoring the ban altogether. Anyone who might be tempted to try this drug should realize its use can end in tragedy, such as the loss of my constituent, David Rozga."

Rozga was an 18-year-old Iowan who may have had a history of depression and committed suicide in June 2010 after smoking K2 with his friends. Soon, reports of the dangers of synthetic pot, ranging from nausea to hallucinations and seizures, were all over the local and national news. Later that year, the Drug Enforcement Agency invoked emergency powers to temporarily ban the drug as lawmakers scrambled to outlaw it for good.

"This report confirms that synthetic drugs cause substantial damage to public health and safety in America," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who came into the Obama administration as a reformer, said in a statement about the SAMHSA report. "Make no mistake—the use of synthetic cannabinoids can cause serious, lasting damage, particularly in young people."

The irony in all this, of course, is that synthetic marijuana only exists because of the federal prohibition on the real stuff. While smoking pot isn't as benign as many advocates claim, particularly when used by teens, it's still one of the safest recreational drugs. Synthetic pot, on the other hand, was largely unregulated in 2010 (as its still-legal derivatives still are), and because it only contains synthetic cannabinoids and not THC—the primary part of the cannabis plant that gets you high—it's good for passing drug tests but provides a worse high with an elevated risk of adverse effects. (The SAMHSA report says there were more than 461,000 emergency room visits in 2010 involving real marijuana. But this is a misleading statistic since it counts a patient's mention of marijuana use regardless of whether it was a factor in the hospitalization.)

Not that the prohibitionists would ever tout the relative safety of pot over its synthetic counterparts. In 2007, responding to constituents' letters asking that he support the legalization of marijuana, Sen. Grassley likened pot to rape, genocide, and counterfeit money:

After several thousand years, civilized societies have failed to eliminate murder, rape, or child abuse. Nor have they eliminated organized crime, the manufacture of counterfeit money, or genocide. But no one seriously sees these failures as justification for surrender. Illegal drug use costs society at least as much as any of these social ills. Yet we do not hear any calls to legalize these abuses. Why then should we give up? Should we surrender to the criminals, and legalize marijuana? No. Instead, we should do whatever we can to prevent criminals from gaining the upper hand, do what needs to be done to give our families, our friends, and our neighbors a safe and secure place to live.

Meanwhile, in the past month, recreational marijuana use has been legalized in Colorado and Washington. Medical marijuana is legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C., and 58 percent of voters now support legalization.