Mojo - March 2012

State Department Fires Iraq Whistleblower

| Sat Mar. 17, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren—a veteran US diplomat whose blog and 2011 book, We Meant Well, detail his futile experiences as a nation builder in Iraq—was formally fired from the State Department this week. Officials at Foggy Bottom say Van Buren is guilty of eight major policy violations, including linking to Wikileaks documents on his blog, leaking classified info in his book, and displaying a "lack of candor" in interrogations by State security officers, according to a statement from his publicist. (A State Department spokesman confirmed the charges to the Washington Post on Wednesday.)

But Van Buren maintains he's being singled out for "dirty tricks in retaliation" for embarassing his employer—a simple exercise of his free-speech rights. "It's hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness," he told the Post.

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Al Qaeda's "Dog Food" Problem

| Fri Mar. 16, 2012 4:10 PM EDT

Republicans and right-leaning critics of Obama's national security policies have often complained that the president's language describing terrorism is too timid and politically correct. (Yes, this is an actual complaint.) The Washington Post's David Ignatius was given a peek at the documents recovered from the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed, and they reveal that bin Laden was worried that Obama's shift in language was actually ruining al Qaeda's brand:

The al-Qaeda brand had become a problem, Bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials "have largely stopped using the phrase 'the war on terror' in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims," and instead promoted a war against al-Qaeda. The organization’s full name was "Qaeda al-Jihad," bin Laden noted, but in its shorthand version, "this name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them." He proposed 10 alternatives "that would not easily be shortened to a word that does not represent us." His first recommendation was "Taifat al-tawhid wal-jihad," or Monotheism and Jihad Group.

Bin Laden ruminated about "mistakes" and "miscalculations" by affiliates in Iraq and elsewhere that had killed Muslims, even in mosques. He told Atiyah to warn every emir, or regional leader, to avoid these “unnecessary civilian casualties,” which were hurting the organization.

"Making these mistakes is a great issue," he stressed, arguing that spilling "Muslim blood" had resulted in "the alienation of most of the nation [of Islam] from the Mujahidin." Local al-Qaeda leaders should "apologize and be held responsible for what happened."

The Obama administration's shift in language—a deliberate attempt to deny terrorists any religious legitimacy whatsoever—came at the advice of national security experts. But the move has long been portrayed in the conservative media as a sign of covert sympathy, admiration, or simple fear of terrorists on Obama's part. Now we know Osama bin Laden found it personally vexing.

My colleague Kevin Drum writes, "So there you have it. Deep-sixing the 'war on terror' rhetoric really did hurt al-Qaeda." But I think this might be just one part of the explanation. As bin Laden seems to have been aware, Al Qaeda developed a branding problem because it mostly killed other Muslims. And as it happens, because of lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the longstanding lack of resolution in the Israeli-Palestian conflict, the US has a similar problem. Civilian deaths are collateral damage that occur as the result of official US actions, while al Qaeda deliberately targets civilians—but I'm not sure those impacted really care about the distinction. 

Ultimately, this isn't a branding issue. It's what political consultants describe as a "dog food problem": No amount of clever marketing can make a dog want to eat ill-tasting dog food. No amount of "rebranding" would erase al Qaeda's Muslim body count. There's no slapping a happy face on grieving family members searching for loved ones in the rubble left behind after a suicide bombing—or, for that matter, a drone strike. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 16, 2012

Fri Mar. 16, 2012 11:06 AM EDT

US Army Staff Sgt. Christian Aleman, 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, Task Force Steel, provides security on the Khowst Prevention Headquarters in Afghanistan, March 5, 2012. Photo by Spc. Phillip McTaggart.

Photos: Joe Biden Unleashed

| Fri Mar. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In early March, Team Obama announced it had decided to "release the Biden": The pugnacious, filter-free VP would be returning to the campaign trail. Soon after, the campaign posted this photo to their website next to the headline "Welcome Joe back to the trail":

Yep. That's the 47th vice president of the United States at a 2012 campaign event, acting out a one-liner from CSI: Miami. Or preparing to gun down a yak from 200 yards away with the power of his mind bullets. Or simply striking a pose that might be described as "Bidening." The Internet jubilantly had its way with the imageGrist blogger David Roberts dubbed it the most "Joe Biden-y" photo ever taken.

Here are some more photos of Joe Biden being Biden—or at least doing a pretty good impression of The Onion version of himself:

Biden, at his part-time job as vice president of the United States of I-Wear-These-Aviators-Better-Than-You-Do.

...doing his best Jack-Nicholson-face.

In May 2011, probably saying something like, "Hey remember that time four days ago when we annihilated Bin Laden? That was pretty sweet."

Hey, remember that time four days ago when

Yet another in a series of photos of Biden cracking up the president. Here, he hangs up his Aviators to play Angry Birds last July, debt-ceiling crisis be damned.

Wreaking vengeance on thieving pigs who remind him of Bin Laden.

Showing up in Kandahar looking exactly like Steven Seagal in Machete while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) cowers behind him.

Lindsey Graham

A bromantic high-five. 

Needs more aviators.

In Iraq. Wearing the Aviators. Of course.

Iraq

Ignoring a small child. And possibly telling the president a dirty joke.

Too damn cool

Biden and Obama, blowing off running the country for a few minutes of taxpayer-funded dicking around.

This is technically taxpayer funded.

 Oh hey Biden. Are you just bidin' your time? Or is that a UFO you see out there?

Image credits: TaraGiancaspro/Flickr; Pete Souza/The White House; Pete Souza/The White House; US Navy Petty Officer Aramis X. Ramirez/isafmedia; Pete Souza/The White House; The US Army/Flickr; Pete Souza/The White House; Pete Souza/The White House; Pete Souza/The White House

WATCH: Why Can't Romney Gain Any Momentum?

Thu Mar. 15, 2012 6:03 PM EDT

Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll joined Keith Olbermann on Current TV's Countdown to discuss why Mitt Romney leads the GOP presidential primary based on delegate numbers but still lacks the kind of popular support his opponent Rick Santorum rallies. Romney's campaign says he'll win by "mathematical elimination"—but will that really be enough to win him the Republican nomination?

The Sheer Banality and Brutality of the Assads

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 5:34 PM EDT
Lovers of reality TV, country music, and mass slaughter.

On Wednesday, The Guardian published its series "The Assad emails," a compilation and analysis of dozens of emails obtained by the UK newspaper that appear to be hacked from the inboxes of Bashar and Asma al-Assad, Syria's first couple. The cache includes juicy tidbits about how the Assad regime solicited help from an Iranian government media adviser on how to handle PR during the Arab Spring protests, and how the Syrian president cracked some lame jokes about empty promises for political "reforms."

But the stolen emails also highlight how strikingly normal this brutal autocrat truly is in aspects of his daily life.*  Assad has directed the slaughter of thousands, subverted democracy at every turn, and threatened to "set fire" to the Middle East. But somewhere between the Barbara Walters interviews and all that mass-murdering, he makes time to troll the Internet. In an email titled "THE BEST ILLUSION OF ALL TIME!..." dated December 13, 2011—the same day government troops launched heavy attacks on the towns of Idlib, Homs, Hama, and Deraa—Bashar praises a magic trick performed on NBC's reality TV show America's Got Talent. He tells his spouse how the illusion—involving a bisected man and an Italian midget—"seems like David Copperfield."

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Super-PACs: The Music Video

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 3:38 PM EDT

This video was produced by ProPublica.

Still confused about exactly what "super-PACs" are and how they're suddenly pouring unlimited donations into presidential politics? Just sit back, relax and listen to the music as we explain:

To explore for yourself exactly where the big spenders and others are putting their money, check out the ProPublica PAC Track.

The video was produced for ProPublica by the geniuses at Explainer Music. Andrew Bean and David Holmes wrote the music and lyrics. Sharon Shattuck designed the graphics, and Krishnan Vasudevan and Sharon did the art direction and animation.

A Progressive Pulls Ahead in Bellwether Congressional Race

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 1:11 PM EDT
Ilya Sheyman

Earlier this week, I highlighted the congressional race of Ilya Sheyman, a former national mobilization director for MoveOn.org, as a bellwether for progressive politics. If he wins his March 20th primary race against a centrist businessman in a moderately Democratic district north of Chicago, it will bolster the case that liberals can triumph by campaigning hard on income inequality and government jobs programs. The most recent poll had cast Sheyman as a slight underdog, but new numbers released today have him winning the race with 45 percent of the vote to businessman Brad Schneider's 27 percent.

The poll, conducted from March 11 to 14 by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and MoveOn, asked: "If the Democratic primary for Congress were held today, and the choices were Ilya Sheyman, Brad Schneider, John Tree, and Vivek Bavda, for whom would you vote?" Its margin of error was 3.9 percent. The poll also asked voters about their views of Schneider's political donations to Republicans, what might be considered push polling, but these questions were asked after the one above.

"This is our top priority House race of 2012 because, like Elizabeth Warren, Ilya Sheyman is a proven progressive fighter who will be a strong ally in Congress," PCCC spokesman Neil Sroka said in a statement. "His victory will send a signal to all Democrats across the nation that if you campaign as a bold progressive, grassroots volunteers and donors will have your back and help you achieve victory."

Is Barack Obama A Murderous Sociopath? Wrong Question

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 10:55 AM EDT
Shortly afterwards, Barack Obama fed this baby to the almighty Sarlaac.

Earlier this week, The Nation's Jeremy Scahill reported that Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who was convicted on terrorism related charges that human rights observers said “failed to meet international standards of due process,” was being held in part because the United States asked Yemen to keep him locked up. Scahill writes that Shaye reported that many of the casualties in American strikes on supposedly militant targets actually hit civilians and his sources speculate that Shaye's continued detention may be the result of his reporting embarrassing the United States, not a matter of actual links to terrorism.

My colleague Kevin Drum takes what I think is the wrong approach to analyzing this situation, when he asks "Is Barack Obama a Murderous Sociopath?"

The U.S. government insists that Shaye is no mere journalist. "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating Al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment," says Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Is that true? I have no idea.

But which do I find more likely? That Shaye is indeed affiliated with al-Qaeda based on evidence that hasn't been made public? Or that Barack Obama is a sociopath who pressures foreign leaders to keep innocent journalists in prison based on the fact that they very slightly annoy him? Call me what you will, but I have to go with Door A. US attacks within Yemen might be bad policy. The entire war on al-Qaeda might be bad policy. What's more, Obama — along with the entire security apparatus of the United States — might be specifically wrong about Shaye. But I don't believe that they're simply making this story up because of a basically inconsequential piece that Shaye wrote two years ago. That just doesn't add up.

Drum's rhetorical question here (is Obama a sociopath?) is one I find frustrating because it essentially turns a policy issue into a matter of trusting Barack Obama. Instead of questioning the approach to Shaye's detention, we're invited to consider whether this fine fellow, Barack Obama, is a murderer. And if you voted for the guy, your immediate reaction is likely to be, "Well of course not!" 

Except that's really a silly way to look at it—run with the same logic in the opposite direction and you end up with hug-gate. What we have here is really the central problem of national security in the post-9/11 era: Are the people the government says are terrorists, the people the US government asserts the right to detain indefinitely the people our government asserts the right to kill far from any declared battlefield, actually guilty? Unfortunately when it comes to terrorism, it can be difficult to ascertain, let alone prove, culpability.  

When considering the overarching question, the least appropriate option I think, is simply assuming the government has justifiable reasons for its actions. The Bush administration said Gitmo held the worst of the worst, it then proceeded to release the vast majority of detainees without ever charging them with a crime. The Obama administration has assumed the authority to kill even US citizens suspected of terrorism abroad without oversight from the other two branches of government. Institutions tend to do what they can get away with, a tendency that can become ever-more problematic when they can do so under cover of official secrecy. 

The response to the government declaring someone a terrorist should be, "prove it." A sham trial by a US client regime propped up by US aid offered because of war on terror expediency doesn't cut it. 

Bipartisan Approval for Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 12:46 PM EDT
Attorney General Eric Holder

When it comes to targeted killing of American citizens, both major political parties have President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder's back.  

Top officials and legislators from both the Democratic and Republican party have expressed public support for the Obama administration's drone strikes against American citizens who were suspected of terrorism abroad. It's not just legislators either—a majority of Democrats and liberals approve of Obama's targeted killing policy.

"The president of the United States has a responsibility, consistent with his legal authorities, to keep the country safe. And that’s what he did," Bush-era Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith told NPR's Tom Ashbrook Monday, while discussing the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, a suspected member of Al Qaeda and US citizen who was killed in a US government-directed drone strike. "Americans have been targeted and killed in past wars, in the Civil War, and in World War II as well, nothing like this kind of scrutiny has ever occurred before."

John Bellinger, a top lawyer at the State Department during the Bush administration, wrote that Holder's speech was "especially commendable for its detailed explanation of the U.S. laws applicable to targeting Americans who engage in terrorist activities outside the United States." John Yoo, the former Justice Department attorney who outlined the legal justification for Bush-era torture, mostly complained that Holder hadn't given his former boss enough credit

GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have all expressed approval of the targeted killing of American citizens abroad who are suspected of terrorism. The only presidential candidate still in the race who objects is Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).

Republicans aren't the only one supporting the president's policy on targeted killing. Appearing on CNN last Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said outright that he didn't understand what Holder meant when he said that "due process" and "judicial process" were not the same, but that "I do know this: The American citizens who have been killed overseas who are terrorists, and, frankly, if anyone in the world deserved to be killed, those three did deserve to be killed."

That includes not only accused American al Qaeda propagandists Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki, but al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son Abdulrahman. Even former Senator Russ Feingold, the lone vote against the PATRIOT Act in 2001, told the Huffington Post's Andrea Stone in February that he was "very pleased that [Anwar al-Awlaki] was taken out." Legislators, to this day, do not appear to have read or been given access to the secret legal memo justifying targeted killing that Holder's speech was based on.

Although Goldsmith, the Bush-era DOJ official, is correct that American citizens have been killed by the US government in past wars, neither the Civil War nor World War II are exactly comparable examples. Advances in technology mean the US can target terror suspects well in advance of an attack, and membership in a terrorist group is not as easily defined or discerned as being part of a uniformed military force. That's why detainees at Gitmo have access to US courts to challenge the government's authority to detain them.

"The idea that the executive branch can be judge jury and executioner...totally undoes the system of checks and balances," Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, said while debating Goldsmith on NPR Monday. "The attorney general is telling us exactly what Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Ashcroft told us: Trust us, we're doing the right thing."

UPDATE: In an interview with Glenn Greenwald, Feingold said that "Now I can’t say for sure if that’s right or wrong. I said I was glad he was gone. I can’t say for sure if it was legal."