Mojo - April 2012

Tennessee Congressional Race Gets 100 Percent More Anti-Shariah-y

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 11:00 AM EDT
Tennessee congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik.

If you live in Middle Tennessee, get ready for another four months of overheated rhetoric about Islam. On Thursday, tea partier and anti-Shariah activist Lou Ann Zelenik announced that she's challenging incumbent Rep. Diane Black (R), setting up a rematch of a 2010 GOP primary that focused heavily on the question of whether Muslims in Murfreesboro should be allowed to build a new mosque.

In that campaign, Zelenik lashed herself to the mosque issue, speaking at a march to protest the construction, and accusing Black of being soft on Shariah. As she told Talking Points Memo, "This isn't a mosque. They're building an Islamic center to teach Sharia law. That is what we stand in opposition to." Zelenik feared that a new mosque in Murfreesboro would be a stepping stone to a more sinister end—the encroachment of radical Islam into Middle Tennessee. It wasn't a winning issue, it turned out, but Zelenik's argument resonated in the city. Later that year, a handful of residents filed a lawsuit to block the construction of the mosque, arguing that Muslims weren't protected by the First Amendment because Islam is a totalitarian political system, not a religion (the Department of Justice was forced to file an amicus brief noting that, yes, Islam is a religion).

Although Black took a relatively moderate stance on the mosque when she ran for Congress, promising to respect Tennesseans' freedom of religion, she has an anti-Islam history, too: as a state Senator, she sponsored Tennessee's 2010 law designed to ban Islamic law from being enforced in state courts.

The added wrinkle here, which should give the primary an added degree of out-in-the-open animosity, is that until two weeks ago, Zelenik was being sued by Black's husband. The suit centered on an ad Zelenik ran during the 2010 pointing out that then-state Sen. Black had steered contracts to her husband's forensic science business. Black and his company, Aegis Sciences, considered this charge defamatory, but the court ruled that Zelenik's spot was accurate, and in this case the truth was the only defense necessary. So: drama.

One quibble, though: The Murfreesboro News-Journal notes that Zelenik will step down from her job at the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, "a nonprofit 501(c)4 organization that has been instrumental in sounding the alarm over the growing Islamic movement in America and the threat of Sharia Law." That's not quite accurate, as there is no real threat from Shariah law in the United States. More accurately, TFC has been instrumental in running around stirring up fears over a phantom menace. This would be a small point, except that Murfreesboro is ground-zero for the Islamophobia movement, so it's something the local newspapers really ought to get right.

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The Secret Torture Memo Cheney Didn't Want You To See

| Thu Apr. 5, 2012 3:20 PM EDT

In 2006, Philip Zelikow, an adviser to then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, wrote a secret memo warning his colleagues that many of the Bush administration's enhanced interrogation techniques were likely illegal. Zelikow didn't speak publicly about the memo—the smoking gun that the Bush administration was warned by its own staff about legal problems with its interrogation program—until 2009, when he revealed its existence in a blog post for Foreign Policy. But when Zelikow testified to Congress about his warning, his classified memo was withheld, and two unclassified documents were released in its stead. Zelikow told Mother Jones in 2009 that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had attempted to destroy any evidence of the classified memo, but that some copies might survive in the State Department's archives.

It appears that Zelikow was right about the archives: the secret memo, which he called a "direct assault on [the Bush Justice Department's] interpretation of American law," was finally released by the State Department on Tuesday, three years after the National Security Archive and WIRED reporter Spencer Ackerman (then at the Washington Independent) first requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. You can read it here:

 

In 2009, when Zelikow told Mother Jones that the "White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo" and that he suspected Cheney's involvement, he noted that the vice-president's office was not officially allowed to do such a thing. "They didn't run the interagency process. Such a request would more likely have come from the White House Counsel's office or from NSC staff... It was conveyed to me, and I ignored it," Zelikow said.

Neil Kinkopf, who worked for the Justice Department under the Clinton administration (and is now an Obama administration official), told Mother Jones in 2009 why Cheney might have wanted to get rid of the document: "People in the White House—Dick Cheney for example; David Addington, his legal adviser—didn't want the existence of dissent to be known. It's not hard to imagine David Addington playing very hardball internal politics and not only wanting to prevail over the view of Zelikow but to annihilate it. It would be perfectly consistent with how he operated."

Zelikow told WIRED on Wednesday that he believes the Bush administration's harsh interrogation techniques constituted a "felony war crime."

Mitt Romney Hires GOP Super-PAC Guru and Ex-Corporate Lobbyist

| Thu Apr. 5, 2012 11:37 AM EDT
Ed Gillespie

On Tuesday, as baseball's managers penciled in their lineups for the first games of the 2012 season, Mitt Romney's campaign hailed a major roster addition of its own: GOP operative and dark-money guru Ed Gillespie.

Gillespie is a pillar of Republican politics. He chaired the Republican National Committee from 2003-05, served as a top aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and helped write the GOP's "Contract with America" in 1994. He also worked on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign and later served as a counselor to Bush in the White House.

What the Romney campaign's press release doesn't mention is Gillespie's years as a well-traveled Washington lobbyist. At his firm, Quinn Gillespie and Associates, Gillespie's client list included such mega-corporations as Bank of America, AT&T, now-bankrupt MF Global, Verizon, and dozens more. Quinn Gillespie bills itself as "as one of the country’s most influential and effective public affairs firms"—that is, a big-time influence peddler in DC. (Gillespie is no longer listed as working for the firm.)

Most recently, Gillespie made headlines for creating, along with Karl Rove, the powerful super-PAC American Crossroads and its shadowy nonprofit sister group, Crossroads GPS. The two groups dominated the outside spending wars in the 2010 midterms. American Crossroads led all other super-PACs in fundraising ($26.5 million) and spending ($21.5 million), and to good effect: Of the 10 races where it spent the most money, 6 went its way. Crossroads GPS, which as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit doesn't disclose its donors, did even better: It spent $15 million and got favorable results in 8 of its top 10 races.

The Crossroads twins dominate the outside-money playing field. And that's due in large part to Gillespie's savvy.

Gillespie says he's taking a leave of absence from Crossroads and his other gigs to work for Romney. But critics of super-PACs and dark money say Gillespie's move to the Romney campaign raises more questions about the supposed independence of the Crossroads groups, which by law cannot coordinate with any candidate or campaign. They wonder: Can Gillespie completely sever his ties with the Crossroads groups?

David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, who calls the super-PAC coordination rules "a complete fiction," says that even if Gillespie ends his work with Crossroads, he'll still bring his knowledge of Crossroads' inner workings, its message and strategy, and relationships with its strategists and its funders to the Romney camp. That knowledge could prove valuable to Romney as he gears up for a general election fight with President Obama. "He could be the connective tissue," Donnelly says.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 5, 2012

Thu Apr. 5, 2012 10:27 AM EDT

Staff Sgt. Brian Sears, Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit relays a status update to his platoon commander during a simulated tactical recovery of personnel scenario. This particular scenario was created by the Command Element to develop the skills of the TRAP unit. The task at hand was to recover two United States Agency for International Development workers after a medical aid mission went wrong. Photo by Gunnery Sgt. John A. Lee, II.

Corn on Hardball: Why Does Mitt Think He Should Be President?

Wed Apr. 4, 2012 7:29 PM EDT

David Corn and former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele appeared on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Mitt Romney's latest attempts to define why he should be president. Now that his victories in the GOP primaries have established Romney as the all-but-inevitable Republican nominee, the 2012 presidential race has narrowed down to a fight between Romney and President Obama. Will Romney, often labeled a flip-flopper, be able to take control of his image and redefine himself for the general presidential campaign?

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. Follow him on Twitter.

RIP: Insider Trading in Congress

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 1:17 PM EDT

Chalk one up for the reformers.

On Wednesday, President Obama signed into the law the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which bans members of Congress and their staffs from using non-public information to get a leg up in the stock market. The law also creates a system for tracking in real-time the stock deals of those walking the halls of Congress. The STOCK Act's passage marks a victory (of sorts) for the good-government group Public Citizen, a long-time advocate of banning congressional insider trading. Here's a useful White House fact-sheet with a full rundown of the law's provisions.

What the STOCK Act does not do is shine some much-needed sunlight on the so-called political intelligence industry. Political intelligence companies meet with lawmakers and their staffs and gather valuable information for Wall Street firms and hedge funds to use in their investment decisions. But a provision forcing these companies to register like lobbyists, included in the original STOCK Act, was stripped out by House Republicans. That explains the bittersweet celebration from Public Citizen's top lobbyist Craig Holman, a driving force behind the bill. "This is a good bill—the most significant ethics achievement of the 112th Congress," he said in a statement. "But it could and should be stronger, and legislation is pending to strengthen it."

The bill's passage marks the end of a years-long, little noticed fight by Holman and others to outlaw congressional insider trading and drag political intelligence firms into the open. What set the STOCK Act on the path to passage, though, was an explosive 60 Minutes segment on the issue last November. (You can watch it here.) Coached by Holman, 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft laid out how members of Congress appeared to make investments based on non-public information. Kroft named names, among them House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio); House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), chair of the House financial services committee. (All the lawmakers denied any insider trading.)

The segment landed like a bomb in Congress. The number of co-sponsors to the STOCK Act leapt to 93. The Senate soon passed the full STOCK Act by a 96-3 vote.

Although the House would later pass a watered-down version of the bill, its passage is an important win for Holman and his allies. What's more, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has already introduced new legislation on political intelligence-gathering.

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Mitt Romney and Scott Brown: Frenemies or Soul Mates?

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 11:46 AM EDT
Sen. Scott Brown (R–Mass.)

I wrote on Monday about GOP political guru Eric Fehrnstrom's dilemma heading into the November election: How to convincingly shill for two candidates, Mitt Romney and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who hold sharply diverging views on the some of the biggests issues of the day. What will Fehrnstrom say when he's inevitably asked to defend Romney's fierce opposition to the Dodd–Frank Wall Street reform law—a law that Brown voted for (after watering it down) and is campaigning on already? Make one false step and you're the star of someone's $500,000 ad buy.

The flip side of that dilemma is that even if Fehrnstrom doesn't end up disparaging one of his candidates' positions, Democrats are perfectly content to lump Brown and Romney together as BFFs. Brown, locked in a dead-even re-election battle against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, got a lot of traction ahead of his 2010 special election by pushing back against Democrats' attempts to tie him to George W. Bush and other Republicans. Relative to the rest of the party, he's still quite popular in Massachusetts, in large part because voters see him as somewhat mavericky.

Massachusetts Democrats would like to change that, and they're hoping the presence of another Massachusetts GOPer on the ballot next November will make it easier to tie Brown to more-unpopular Republicans. Here's a new spot just released from the Massachusetts Democratic party:

There's some symmetry to the campaign, at least. For some time now, Warren has tethered her Senate campaign to the fortunes of President Barack Obama. Warren played a starring role in the president's recent documentary-quality infomercial, and the Obama campaign recently sent out two minutes of deleted scenes from the film featuring...Warren, talking about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she conceived and helped design.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 4, 2012

Wed Apr. 4, 2012 10:39 AM EDT

US Army Spc. Shawnte Rollins (right), a native of Elkhart, Ind., and part of the female engagement team, and Afghan National Security soldiers collect information from motorists passing through a temporary control point set up at the Chenigai Pass in Bak district, March 30, 2012. Delaware Company is part of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment, Task Force Blue Geronimo. Photo by the US Army.

AP Fact-Check of Obama Speech Sort of Defeats Point of Fact-Checking

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 10:03 AM EDT
President Barack Obama reads the AP's fact-check of his most recent speech with mounting frustration.

President Obama delivered a fiery (as we journalists like to call such things) speech to a gathering of newspapers editors in Washington on Tuesday, chiding Mitt Romney for using words like "marvelous" and knocking GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan as "social darwinism." It was, by most accounts, a sign of what's to come from the campaign over the next seven months. Let's hope this fact-check of the speech from the Associated Press isn't also a harbinger of the future. ("It's not even 10 A.M. and we already have a 'worst of the day' winner," tweets Pema Levy.) The problem with the piece, by the normally solid Calvin Woodward, is that it doesn't really check any facts (inflated jobs figures, spending increases, that kind of thing). Instead, it suffers from a massive glut of false equivalence. For instance:

  • "Obama ignored realities in his own Democratic ranks. For one, it was opposition from coal-state Democrats that sank cap-and-trade legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions, not just from those arch-conservative Republicans."

This is somewhat true. In a campaign ad, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin actually shot a piece of cap-and-trade legislation to demonstrate how much he hated the idea of a market for carbon credits. (He really dislikes them!) But although a small fraction of Senate Democrats opposed cap-and-trade, the entire Republican caucus opposed it. As Ryan Lizza explained, there are complicated process-related explanations for why climate legislation failed, but on a sheer mathematical level, Republicans blocked it.

The piece continues:

  • "For another, if Republicans have moved to the right on health care, it's also true that Obama has moved to the left. He strenuously opposed a mandate forcing people to obtain health insurance until he won office and changed his mind."

But that wasn't actually a shift to the left. As a candidate, Obama campaigned on a public option. Progressives were devastated when it was nixed from the Affordable Care Act—to the extent that some refused to support the final bill. Instead, Obama went with the market-driven approach favored by the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Why? Well, in part because Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley suggested there would be "broad bi-partisan support" for such a solution. Can you really knock someone for moving to the left when they started off on the left and ended up where the center used to be?

The fact-check goes on to rebuke Obama for accusing Republicans of wanting to toss out lots of economic regulations (something Republicans want to do) by pointing out that Romney himself doesn't want to literally eliminate every federal regulation—only a lot of them, including the Dodd–Frank Wall Street reform package, which was designed to prevent a repeat of the practices that led to the 2008 crash. But Obama didn't actually say Romney wanted to eliminate all federal regulations—only a lot of them.

A sense of nuance is helpful when writing about Washington politics—and nuance, incidentally, is something campaign speeches generally lack. But fact-checks are for objective facts, not subjective arguments about what does and doesn't constitute excessive deregulation. Pieces like this sort of defeat the point.

Corn on MSNBC: Obama Goes After the Ryan Budget

Tue Apr. 3, 2012 9:04 PM EDT

David Corn joined host Al Sharpton on MSNBC's Politics Nation to discuss President Obama's recent criticism of Paul Ryan's budget, what Romney's support of the budget means for his candidacy, and how the budget would hurt America's poor.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.