During Exercise Amitie, elements from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit participated in a three-day mounted patrol, land and water obstacle courses, aviation-related evolutions and joint planning in Djibouti.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. John Robbart III.

White House Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan briefs the president in the Oval Office in 2010.

Two top senators have promised to ask John Brennan, Obama's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, about his views on torture before they vote on whether to confirm him to the post.

"I will be discussing with Mr. Brennan the Intelligence Committee’s recently completed report on CIA detention and interrogation operations from 2001 to 2009 and will ask how he would respond to the report's findings and conclusions if confirmed," Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Monday. A spokeswoman for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), an outgoing member of the committee, said McCain planned to question Brennan about his views on torture and the Senate report in writing. The Senate Intelligence Committee recently completed a three year review of the CIA's detention and interrogation policies during the Bush administration, but the report has not been released to the public. (An unclassified version of the report may be released at some point in the future, after the Senate hears from the CIA and the White House about whether they think that's wise.)

McCain also said Monday that he planned to scrutinize "what role [Brennan] played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs." Brennan previously defended coercive interrogation other than waterboarding.

The CIA's handling of its contacts with the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty, a movie dramatizing the hunt for Osama bin Laden, could also come up. Feinstein, McCain and Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sent a letter to the acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, asking for information on the Agency's cooperation with the filmmakers, because the film left the "clear implication that information obtained during or after the use of the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques played a critical role in locating Osama Bin Laden." The recently approved Senate intelligence committee report comes to the opposite conclusion, saying that those techniques did not help in locating the Al Qaeda leader. If the CIA doesn't respond to the senators' request before Brennan's confirmation hearing, the movie could come up as an issue. 

Morell released a statement in December critiquing Zero Dark Thirty for taking "significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate." Specifically, Morell wrote, "the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false." 

In August 2011, a group of 10 law professors submitted a petition (PDF) to the Securities and Exchange Commission urging the agency to consider requiring publicly held companies to fully disclose their political spending to their investors. After the proposal received more than 320,000 public comments, an unprecedented number, the SEC placed it on its 2013 agenda on the Friday before Christmas.

As it stands now, corporations must publicly disclose much of their political spending, but there is no way to know their total spending, partly because they can cloak their contributions by channeling them through outside-spending groups with lax disclosure requirements. For example, the insurance giant Aetna handed over more than $7 million to the American Action Network and Chamber of Commerce to quietly influence recent elections; those donations were only revealed inadvertently.

The Corporate Reform Coalition, a collection of campaign-finace reform groups led by Public Citizen, is applauding the SEC's willingness to consider the new rules. "Investors have been clamoring for this information from the SEC for some time," said Robert Jackson, a Columbia University law prof who cosponsored the SEC petition, during a conference call organized by the coalition this morning.

Some corporations already voluntarily disclose all of their political spending; others argue that mandatory disclosure would be too burdensome. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), a member of a newly formed House task force on election reform that's taking aim at Citizens United and one of 42 members of the House to publicly support the SEC proposal, has rejected that argument, calling for the agency to "mandate uniform disclosure of a minimum dataset" of political spending.

Corporate response to shareholders' demands for political spending disclosure, based on figures from the Center for Political Accountability.

While proponents of the proposal expect strong opposition from corporate America, they are hopeful that the SEC, influenced by what Pennsylvania state treasurer Rob McCord called a "moderate, centrist, good-government impulse," will implement the new rule this year. One of the SEC's four commissioners, Luis Aguilar, is already an outspoken proponent of uniform disclosure requirements. Without them, he's said, "it is impossible to have any corporate accountability or oversight."

And for all the controversy surrounding Citizens United, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly upheld the constitutionality of disclosure requirements as part of its ruling. (Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.) The CU decision explicitly acknowledged the importance of shareholders' "corporate democracy" in "determin[ing] whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits."

Rep. Sarbanes has called the SEC's willingness to consider the rule-change proposal "an incredibly important development." On this morning's conference call, he referred to outside spending groups as "money drones": "You're walking down the street running your campaign, next thing you know they come at you with a lot of money, and the people operating those drones are hidden because we don't have proper disclosure."

In November of 2011, the South Florida chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations wrote to Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) to ask him to denounce Pamela Geller, a blogger and friend of West's whose writing on Islam has been classified as "hate speech" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Instead, West, a notorious critic of Islam, wrote back with the one-word response you see above: "Nuts!"—a reference to Americans General Anthony McAuliffe's message to the Germans at Bastogne.

The Miami New-Times called the letter "the dumbest thing ever written on congressional stationery," which is something we can debate, but it's almost certainly the most Allen West thing ever written on congressional stationary.

So now that CAIR's biggest antagonist has been forced into early retirement (effective last week), how is the organization coping? By putting the letter on eBay, apparently:

Up for Auction is one of the shortest Congressional Letters ever written in US History! This is the ORIGINAL LETTER on Official US Congressional Stationary signed by Allen West himself!This item has something for everyone. It doesn't matter if you are a die-hard member of the Tea Party, Democratic Party, or protect the Civil Rights of Americans; this item is perfect for your collection.

Tea Party- This letter is signed by your fearless Rock Star! If you win this auction you will have signed documented proof that Allen West stood up in the face of your “EVIL” to protect the US (A "Judeo-Christian" Nation) from the Muslims. Your collection can’t go without this item.

Members of the Democratic Party- This letter represents the accomplishment of Democratic Party’s victory over Allen West. Allen West’s firebrand of politics often came with blanket insults towards Democrats with no regard of Congressional Fellowship or Respect. Vice-President Biden recently thanked Murphy at a rooftop party for running and defeating Allen West...

Protectors of Civil Rights- As you are well aware Allen West represented the antithesis of equality and fair treatment of ALL AMERICANS. If you were not part of his narrative or didn't agree with him you were a threat to our “Gene Pool”. J Bid on this letter today as a sign of your commitment to protect ALL Americans Civil Rights. If you win this Auction you will have a little piece of US History and proof that Equality is not negotiable !

The letter is currently going for $1,575. Bidding ends January 17. Steadfast and Loyal.

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ryan Schulte, security force platoon leader for Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah, uses his scans for security threats from the rooftop at the site of a key leader engagement in Farah City, Jan. 3. U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives/released.
Rush Limbaugh's website is not banned by the Pentagon. John Aravosis, AMERICAblog

Gay and lesbian Americans have been able to serve openly in the military ever since President Obama repealed "Don't Ask Don't Tell" in September 2011. But online, some Pentagon computers appear to force the LGBT military community behind closed doors, blocking military users' access to LGBT advocates' and other progressives' websites, while conservative sites remain fully accessible, according to John Aravosis of AMERICAblog. The military now blames faulty computer software for the de facto censorship, but gay activists say the Department of Defense has known about the problem for over a year—and still hasn't fixed it.

Aravosisa journalist and activist who defended a US Navy sailor for challenging DADT in 1998learned from a military contact that his website was blocked on the Pentagon's official computer system. He then had several other contacts take screenshots of websites that were blocked on Pentagon computers. Aravosis discovered that LGBT websites like the Human Rights Campaign blog and OutServe-SLDN, a website co-founded by Air Force officer Josh Seefried that supports gay members of the military, were blocked. Progressive sites like Daily Kos made the blocked list as well. But the conservative websites of Andrew Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, as well as anti-gay rights groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council, were accessible:


Zeke Stokes, a spokesman for OutServe, told Mother Jones that the organization and its 6,000 affiliated LGBT service members have been notifying the Pentagon and local commanders of this issue since the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell in 2011, but the Pentagon failed to adequately respond until this past weekend, when Aravosis pointed out the problem.

The Department of Defense issued a statement on Facebook on Friday that said it "does not block LGBT websites" deliberately. Rather, the pages "were denied access based on web filters blocking the Blog/Personal Pages" category. (Military officials have long blocked workers' access to websites they consider non-secure, personal timewasters, or otherwise unfit for consumption in office hours.) Aravosis tells Mother Jones he found this initial statement  "disturbing," because websites like Ann Coulter's blog and Red State, a conservative news blog, both appear to fall in this category, but were not blocked. "They didn't seem to recognize the possibility of a problem, and appeared to have no intent to investigate," he says.

But Aravosis was sent what he calls "a much better statement" from Pentagon Press Secretary George Little on Saturday, saying that "[t]he Department of Defense strongly supports the rights of gay and lesbian men and women in uniform" and "in certain instances, access may [be] limited to content not directly related to carrying out mission or professional duties." Little added that "some sites may have been unnecessarily blocked" and promised that the matter would be looked into.

     John Aravosis, AMERICAblog

Jeremy Hooper, activist and author of the pro-gay paean If It's a Choice, My Zygote Chose Balls, says his site, Good As You, was unnecessarily blocked. "[There is no valid reason] for a nine-year-old news site that features daily updated news, commentary, and yes, irreverence, geared towards the fight for equality to be filtered," he tells Mother Jones.

One reason the Pentagon may be blocking these sites (at least on some computers) is because it uses many different kinds of filtering software across the department, and one "information assurance" office may not have access to all the security settings. According to Aravosis, one of the DOD's site-blocking programs was developed by Blue Coat Systems, an American company whose wares have also been used by the repressive regime in Syria. On Blue Coat's website, the LGBT category is defined, not as housing sexually explicit content, but as containing "websites that provide reference materials, news, legal information, anti-bullying and suicide-prevention information, and other resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ("LGBT") people."

Richard Bejtlich, the chief security officer at the Arlington, Virginia-based info security firm Mandiant and an expert on Pentagon cybersecurity software, told Mother Jones that "it's possible that all LGBT sites are blocked by default and the military didn't know," or even that "the settings came from the whim of a single person, as these systems are typically not very well-controlled."

Bejtlich also points out that "blocks are generally not a censorship issue, but instead, DoD has found that the Russians or the Chinese are tunneling information and they shut everything down until they figure out what's going on. DoD could be falling back on that excuse."

Both Hooper and Stokes are willing to accept the Pentagon's explanation that the censorship is most likely a software mistake. "[A]ssuming this is an error that is corrected quickly, it shouldn't reflect badly," Stokes tells us, but he also points out that "appropriate attention has not been paid to fixing it until now, despite numerous requests."

Pam Spaulding, founder of the LGBT blog Pam's House Blend, says that even if the censorship is unintentional, her site doesn't pose much of a security risk. "What is so subversive about anything I write here that the tender souls at the Pentagon need their eyes protected from?" she writes. "Do they think the content will give service members the vapors or make them catch THE GAY?"

Six micrograms of lead exposurea quantity so small it's invisiblemay be enough to permanently alter a child's development and increase crime in a community. Watch Mother Jones political blogger Kevin Drum discuss his new cover story on lead on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry.

Pioneering lead toxicologist Howard Mielke, who we interviewed recently, was also a guest on the show:

Kevin also joined a panel with Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed to discuss why Democrats didn't win a majority of seats in the House of Representitives, how the Dems can run better campaigns in the future, and Clinton's 1996 Welfare Reform Act:


White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and President Barack Obama share a meal in February 2010.

Four years ago, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan withdrew his name from consideration to run the Central Intelligence Agency. On Monday, President Barack Obama announced Brennan was his pick for the job, following the resignation of David Petraeus over an extramarital affair.

In his 2008 letter taking himself out of contention for CIA director, Brennan referred to "strong criticism in some quarters prompted by my previous service with the Central Intelligence Agency." What Brennan meant was that he had defended coercive interrogation (except for waterboarding) and backed warrantless surveillance—approaches to counterterrorism that enraged civil libertarians and that Obama had rejected as a presidential candidate.

Brennan's nomination "raised concerns," the American Civil Liberties Union said Monday, and called on the Senate to "assess the role of the CIA—and any role by Brennan himself—in torture, abuse, secret prisons, and extraordinary rendition during his past tenure at the CIA, as well as review the legal authorities for the targeted killing program that he has overseen in his current position." 

Back in 2008, this sort of civil-liberties-based opposition to Brennan made sense. Obama had promised to reverse many of the Bush-era excesses in the war on terror. Having Brennan at the CIA was unacceptable to the left because it signaled not only that Obama wouldn't go after torturers or curtail violations of civil liberties, but also that the promised shift away from Bush-era policies would never come. 

Brennan didn't become CIA chief, but it hardly mattered: Obama's first term unfolded almost exactly as Brennan's liberal critics had feared. The Justice Department watered down its internal ethics investigation against Bush lawyers who sanctioned torture. It declined to prosecute CIA interrogators who went beyond even the "legalized" torture guidelines while prosecuting former CIA official John Kiriakou for talking about the program. The Obama administration expanded the use of targeted killing, blocked attempts to establish stronger oversight over government surveillance, and has repeatedly broken its promise of greater transparency in the war on terror, trotting officials like Brennan out to defend the administration's counterterrorism policies as legal while refusing to release the actual government documents justifying them. 

Brennan has, according to many reports on the internal dynamics of the Obama administration, advocated restraint in the use of targeted killing, despite publicly making unbelievably rosy assessments of drone strikes' impact on civilians. He has publicly defended the use of the civilian justice system to handle terror suspects, angering Republicans who tried to suggest that an FBI interrogation is akin to being interviewed on cable news. According to author Daniel Klaidman, Brennan also supported Obama's failed effort to close Guantanamo. Most of these positions are actually consistent with those of the late Bush administration, though the GOP's rightward shift makes it seem otherwise. The Senate should use Brennan's confirmation to scrutinize Obama administration policies—but it's unlikely that a different nominee would mean a different course. 

Everything that civil-liberties advocates feared might have come to pass if Brennan had been appointed at the CIA happened anyway. Which is to say that it's impossible to make a case against Brennan running the CIA that isn't also a case against Obama. It's Obama, not Brennan, who is ultimately responsible for the policies of the past four years. Those won't change unless Obama wants them to, whether Brennan runs the CIA or not.

Remember rendition? Many people believe the practice of having terrorism suspects interrogated overseas was supposed to end when George W. Bush left office. But President Barack Obama said he'd end torture, not renditions—and last week, the Washington Post reported that they're still happening. That's true in some sense, but as Mother Jones and others have reported, the Obama administration's use of foreign regimes to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects has avoided Bush-style renditions in favor of a different practice known as proxy detention.

Law professor and national security expert Steve Vladeck explained the difference between the Bush and Obama renditions on the Lawfare blog last week. The two most famous cases of Bush-era extraordinary rendition are those of Maher Arar and Khaled El-Masri, two men whom, as Vladeck noted, "were illegally sent by the United States to third-party countries where they could be interrogated (and tortured) in a manner that would have been unlawful if conducted by U.S. officials." The case in the Post story is different, in that it involves arrests by local authorites who later transferred the detainees to the United States, and that there's no torture alleged. This case indeed involves prisoner transfers from one country to another, but the details are completely different. The Post story, Vladeck argued, "is equating apples to oranges in a context in which nuance matters."

Here's the meat of the Post's story:

The three European men with Somali roots were arrested on a murky pretext in August as they passed through the small African country of Djibouti. But the reason soon became clear when they were visited in their jail cells by a succession of American interrogators.

U.S. agents accused the men — two of them Swedes, the other a longtime resident of Britain — of supporting al-Shabab, an Islamist militia in Somalia that Washington considers a terrorist group. Two months after their arrest, the prisoners were secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York, then clandestinely taken into custody by the FBI and flown to the United States to face trial....

The men are the latest example of how the Obama administration has embraced rendition — the practice of holding and interrogating terrorism suspects in other countries without due process — despite widespread condemnation of the tactic in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In the September/October 2011 issue of Mother Jones, I reported on several cases of suspected proxy detention of American citizens, and confirmed, via multiple FBI sources, that the bureau does in fact share information with foreign security services that leads to the arrests and detentions of both foreigners and Americans abroad—and that US officials interrogate American and foreign-born terrorism suspects in foreign custody.

The practice may not be as bad as grabbing Abu Omar from the streets of Milan and whisking him away to Egypt for torture. But proxy detention still raises civil liberties groups' hackles, because proxy detainees are granted fewer rights, and subjected to harsher interrogations (and sometimes abuse, allegedly) under foreign custody than they would be if they were arrested in the United States. Today, instead of imprisoning terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay, as we did during the Bush administration, we're either blowing them up with drones or having our allies abroad pick them up and do the detaining (and sometimes the interrogating) for us. So the revelation in the Post story wasn't necessarily surprising: If US government officials are willing to have nasty foreign regimes pick up American citizens, they likely wouldn't think twice about nudging Djibouti to arrest a few Swedes.

Civil libertarians worry that proxy detention is a way for the US government to avoid granting terrorist suspects due process rights they would have if they were in US custody. But the FBI's justification for sharing information that leads nasty regimes to arrest terrorist suspects is simple, as one FBI source explained to me in 2011: If the Saudis knew one of their citizens who they believed to be a terrorist was coming to the United States, we'd want them to tell us about it. Shouldn't we be willing to tip them off if Americans—or, in this case, two Swedes and a Brit*—we believe are involved with terrorism are traveling in their country?

The answer the FBI source was looking for was "yes, we should tip off the Saudis if we think an American-born terrorist is in their country, even if we think that person might be tortured"—and there's legal documentation that this has happened at least once. While I was researching my 2011 proxy detention story, I read a series of depositions given by FBI officials in an FBI agent's whistleblowing lawsuit against the FBI. They indicated that in 2002, the United States revealed the identity of an American under FBI investigation to the Saudi secret police, despite fears that the American, who was unnamed in the depositions, might be tortured in Saudi custody.

Not long after, in June 2003, the Saudi secret police arrested and interrogated Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, an American suspected of involvement with Al Qaeda. (There is reason to suspect that Abu Ali was the American whose identity was shared with the Saudis, but since his name wasn't mentioned in the depositions, there's no proof.) Civil rights groups and Abu Ali's legal team sued in federal court, saying Abu Ali had been detained at the behest of the United States. A federal judge ordered the government to release more details about Abu Ali's case, but before that could happen, the Saudis extradicted Abu Ali to the US, where he was tried and convicted of material support for terrorism. Abu Ali would later claim he had been tortured in Saudi custody.

Today, years after Abu Ali's conviction, allegations of proxy detention continue to pop up. I've devoted special attention to covering reports involving Americans detained abroad, since American citizens have rights under US law that foreigners do not. (The most recent report surfaced in April 2012, when Yonas Fikre, an American Muslim now living in Sweden, claimed he, too, was a victim of proxy detention, and that he was tortured.) But any case in which someone is detained abroad allegedly at the request of the US government deserves our attention, because if the government is tapping allies' security forces to skirt due process rules overseas, how long before it decides due process is also too burdensome at home?

Matthew Waxman, also a law professor who blogs at Lawfare, wrote last week that he thinks these sorts of proxy detentions are "going on — at least indirectly — more than we know publicly." The problem for the FBI, though, is that if it chooses to take formal custody of proxy detainees, and return them to the US for trial, it's likely that more of these sorts of stories will come out, potentially exposing sensitive intelligence cooperation with foreign regimes—and those regimes' misbehavior.

*Correction: It was two Swedes and a Brit, not three Swedes.

U.S. Marines with Weapons Company 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, perform a live-fire manuever on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan, Jan. 4, 2013.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Katelyn M. Hunter.