Mojo - February 2013

Here's a Potential GOP Senate Candidate Playing Beer Pong

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 11:49 AM PST
State Rep. Dan Winslow (R-Mass.)

On Tuesday, after a handful of Republican candidates with statewide name recognition had signaled they weren't interested, Massachusetts state Rep. Dan Winslow announced he was forming an exploratory committee for the special election to replace former Democratic Sen. John Kerry. Winslow, who is pro-choice and has been previously endorsed by gay rights groups, has been viewed as a rising star in the state party for a few years now (see this profile in Commonwealth magazine in 2011), but would face an uphill challenge if he runs. Reps. Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey are vying for the Democratic nomination.

Prior to launching his exploratory committee, though, Winslow's most noteworthy political move was becoming perhaps the only pol in American history to hold a photo op while playing beer pong. The "Beer Pong and Politics Networking and Fundraiser," held at Boston's Battery Park Bar and Lounge in September 2011, gave attendees a chance to mingle with their representative while partaking in the national sport of 18–24-year-olds. As Winslow told the Medfield Press, "The idea is to encourage participation by people not typically involved in politics. It's as much a 'friend-raiser' as a 'fund-raiser'"—hence the low ticket price ($25, open-bar included). Per the Press, Winslow played with water in his cups instead of beer.

Here's the logo for the event, per its Facebook page:

"Sink it / drink it" Facebook

And here's Winslow's promotional tweet:
 

Winslow isn't the only Republican interested in the race. The Hill reported that the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has also approached former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez about running for the seat.

Winslow hasn't responded to a Mother Jones inquiry about the his pong skills, but we'll update if we hear back.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Obama Targeted Killing Document: If We Do It, It's Not Illegal

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 9:53 AM PST

If a high-ranking administration official does it, it's not illegal. At least not when we're talking about ordering the death of an American citizen the administration believes to be associated with Al Qaeda. 

That's the conclusion of a Department of Justice "white paper" obtained by NBC's Michael Isikoff, who published it Monday night. The paper outlines the Obama administration's legal rationale for the targeted killing of US citizens suspected of terrorism abroad. Administration officials have previously defended such killings as lawful in public. But the white paper, which according to NBC was provided to members of the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees last June, lays out those arguments in greater detail.

The paper states that the US government can kill its own citizens overseas if:

(1) An informed, high level-official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.

(2) Capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and

(3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.

This refers to all targeted killing—not just operations using drones, government officials could theoretically send assassins to hunt down suspected terrorists. The paper states that in order to be killed under this program, an individual must be part of Al Qaeda or its "associated forces." Al Qaeda's "associated forces" include groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that did not exist in 2001 but that the government nevertheless believes is covered by the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Although the administration has previously said that President Barack Obama makes the final call on targeted killing decisions involving Americans, based on recommendations from high-level national security officials, the white paper says that a decision of what it calls "extraordinary seriousness" need not involve the president—nor even multiple people. Instead, the paper argues, a single "high level-official," whose authority is undefined, can approve a death sentence for an American citizen as long as the target is too difficult for the US government to capture and the loss of civilian life that would result from a targeted killing is not deemed excessive. 

When the paper says "imminent threat of violent attack against the United States," however, "imminent" means something other than what you might expect. All it means is that the executive branch of the US government must make a secret, unilateral determination that the person it wants to kill is a member of a terrorist organization: "The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future," the paper notes. Not since the torture memos themselves have we seen such a bald defiance of what words actually mean. In the white paper, the government explains its broad definition of "imminent threat" by arguing that delaying a targeted killing "until preparations for an attack are concluded, would not allow the United States sufficient time to defend itself." 

Since the administration's "kill list" is secret, those targeted have no opportunity to challenge their designation as terrorists who may be deprived of life by a "high level national security official." Nevertheless, the paper concludes, the Due Process Clause—the part of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that protects Americans from being deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"—"would not prohibit a lethal operation of the sort contemplated here."

The idea that a government official can rubber-stamp the killing of an American citizen echoes the conclusion of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in Hamdi that "due process requires nothing more than a good-faith executive determination." (Or as Stephen Colbert put it, "due process just means there's a process that you do.")

The Obama administration claims that the secret judgment of a single "well-informed high level administration official" meets the demands of due process and is sufficient justification to kill an American citizen suspected of working with terrorists. That procedure is entirely secret. Thus it's impossible to know which rules the administration has established to protect due process and to determine how closely those rules are followed. The government needs the approval of a judge to detain a suspected terrorist. To kill one, it need only give itself permission. 

Obama's "Skeetgate," Explained

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 9:44 AM PST

An official White House photo of the moment Obama decided to hatch a plan to fool the world with a story about habitual skeet shooting.

For the past week, you've probably heard a lot about President Obama and skeet shooting. Basically, what began as one offhanded remark in an interview with The New Republic has transmogrified into a billow of conspiracy theories, parody, and upsetting political discussion. Here is your guide to Skeetgate 2013:

Wait, what?

Good question.

This all started when Obama told The New Republic in an exclusive interview published online on Sunday, January 27 that he has "a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations," and that:

[U]p at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.

(In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, the president has been pushing initiatives and legislation aimed at reducing gun violence in America.)

This statement—a bold claim that Barack Obama has looked at, and has even touched, a firearm at any point in his liberal-left lifetime—kicked off a wave of strained credulity on the part of the American right.

What did the backlash look like?

At a press briefing on the day after TNR ran the story, White House press secretary Jay Carney responded to a question regarding why there aren't any publicly available photos of Obama skeet shooting at Camp David. (Carney addressed related skepticism yet again when he spoke with reporters aboard Air Force One exactly one week after.)

Unsurprisingly, Matt Drudge went ahead and did his thing:

The Latest Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory: Obama Death Squads Targeting Gun Rights Activists

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 8:55 AM PST
John Noveske, one of the alleged victims of Obama's alleged death squads

What do you get when you combine the president's ability to secretly kill American citizens and the recent push to restrict gun access? One of the most bizarre anti-Obama conspiracy theories ever—and it takes a lot to win that prize

Various tea party activists, libertarian websites and other conspiracy-minded Obama haters are claiming that Russian security forces have discovered that Obama is about to unleash "death squads" across America to assassinate defenders of the Second Amendment. According to Liberty.com, one of the sites perpetuating this latest story, Russian intelligence has outlined the whole nefarious plot in a memo for President Vladimir Putin, detailing the Obama's administration's dispatch of "VIPER teams...which is the acronym for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response Team, a programme run by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and whose agents terrify millions of Americans with Nazi-like Gestapo tactics on a daily basis at airports and who report to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)."

Liberty.com (run by a Florida tea party leader), which echoes the theory promoted by similar sites, maintains that these teams—800 of them, to be precise—are set to "disperse throughout his country in preparation for what Russian intelligence analysts are predicting to be a series of high-profile killings of dissident Americans set to begin as soon as February 22nd." Obama has apparently been emboldened to launch such an operation by the recent federal court ruling upholding his right to kill American citizens with drone strikes without explaining why.

This supposed Russian memo purportedly identifies two gun rights activists who already have been murdered by Obama's death squads: John Noveske, the owner of Noveske Rifleworks, which makes assault weapons, and Keith Ratliff, a cult sensation for his work on FPSRussian, a popular YouTube video channel devoted to high-power weapons and explosives.

Both men were, in fact, killed last month in separate incidents. Noveske died after his 1984 Land Rover crossed the center line in Grants Pass, Oregon and hit some boulders. He wasn't wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle. 

Ratliff's body was found at a weapons testing and developing facility he operated in rural Georgia, among piles of firearms, with a single gunshot to the head. His death has indeed been ruled a homicide. A European site promoting this conspiracy theory reports:

By assassinating Noveske and Ratliff, FSB [Russian] intelligence analysts in this report say, the Obama regime is sending a "chilling message" to all who oppose their plan to totally disarm the American people that they "will stop at nothing" to see their master plan implemented.

Even worse, this report warns, is "new evidence" coming from the United States that the Obama regime is planning another "mass carnage" type event to occur within the next few weeks to bolster their spurious claim that Americans need to be disarmed.

After reading these shocking reports, I called the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, to investigate further. The press office did not return my call, so clearly it all must be true.

Or here's another option: The conspiracy theorists and anti-Obama activists warning of impending death squads could have fallen for a pretty obvious hoax. They don't, after all, seem to have an actual copy of the alleged Russian security memo to Putin. And there's this: WhatDoesItMean.com was one of the earliest promoters of this "story," and it's an infamous conspiracy and "alternative news" site that is the source of hundreds of fictional doomsday reports. (It once published a story claiming that the earthquake in Haiti was caused by erroneous weapons testing by the US Navy.) Liberty.com and other sites have been quoting directly from WhatDoesItMean.com. So perhaps gun-rights activists should relax; they've got nothing more menacing to worry about than the pending legislation on Capitol Hill.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 5, 2013

Tue Feb. 5, 2013 8:46 AM PST

A soldier with 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, Combined Task Force 4-2, leads a foot patrol using a Mine Hound to detect any improvised explosive devices on their path, Jan.29 in Panjwaii District, Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Hackbarth, 4th SBCT, 2nd Inf. Div. Public Affairs Office.

 

What We Still Don't Know About Mass Shootings

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 4:26 AM PST

Late last week Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast posted an online interview she did with criminologist James Alan Fox, in part taking issue with our mass shootings investigation at Mother Jones. I was glad to see McArdle continue the conversation with Fox; as he and I agreed in a recent exchange, mass shootings deserve continuing inquiry.

Based on data that includes all gun crimes in America involving four or more fatalities, Fox has found that mass shootings are not on the rise. He has also applauded our more narrowly focused investigation, which found a rise in a specific type of mass shooting, and acknowledged its value to studying the problem.

McArdle, however, maintains that our in-depth project is of no value: It is, in her view, "not a database of mass shootings; it's a database of mass shootings that Mother Jones wanted to include in their database."

In fact, we stated explicitly at the outset that our investigation was not all-inclusive, but rather a deep study of a particular kind of mass gun violence. Because no clear definition of "mass shooting" exists, we consulted with federal law enforcement officials and academic experts—including Fox—to develop criteria.‪ Our goal was to dig deeper into the specific phenomenon of seemingly incomprehensible attacks in public places—shopping malls, religious buildings, workplaces, schools—to try to make more sense of these "senseless" tragedies. Thus, we excluded other types of clear-cut cases in which the primary motive involved gang activity, armed robbery, or domestic violence.

Given the complexity of mass gun violence, we suspected that we might encounter a couple of exceptional cases that would require discretion in applying our criteria. We chose to include the Columbine massacre, as well as the Westside Middle School shooting, because they fit the criteria despite that two shooters were involved in each case, an exception we flagged for readers. In other words, we included all school shooting cases from the last 30 years clearly fitting this type of attack, as defined by fatality count, location, and motive. (It bears noting that if we were to have excluded those two cases, it would not have meaningfully altered any of our broader analytical findings.)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Mass Shootings More Lethal Than Homegrown Islamist Terrorism

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 4:07 AM PST

The Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security released a study Friday (first reported on by Spencer Ackerman of Wired) that showed that terrorism perpetrated by Muslim Americans, already a very rare occurrence, declined for the third year in a row. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor Charles Kurzman, who authored the study, noted that mass shootings by non-Muslims in 2012 were considerably more lethal than homegrown terror attacks by Muslims. There were nine such terror plots last year, five of which involved confidential informants, compared to seven mass shootings.

For example, in 2012, the number of deaths resulting from acts of terror perpetrated by Muslim American suspects was zero. By comparison, there were 66 deaths from mass shootings in the United States in 2012. Here's what that looks like:

Mother Jones

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, mass shootings have been considerably more lethal than Islamist terrorist attacks in the US. As Kurzman notes, more people were killed in mass shootings in the US in 2012 alone than died in all terrorist attacks by Muslims in the US since 9/11:

Mother Jones

The comparable lethality of mass shooters versus aspiring terrorists seems to be in part a result of would-be terrorists' commitment to theatricality. Terrorist wannabes are frequently snared in elaborate false terror plots by federal agents, whereas mass shooters often simply go to crowded places and open fire. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people and wounded many others in 2009 in a rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas, was one of the only Muslim terrorists to attempt a mass shooting; his plan resulted in more casualties than any other post-9/11 Muslim terrorist attack in the US.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the seventh mass shooting of 2012, spurred lawmakers into a conversation about changing gun policy. If earlier incidents had involved a Muslim shooter, starting that conversation may not have taken so long. Whether Americans expect the government to protect them from violence—and what lengths Americans expect the government to go in order to do so—seems to depend heavily on whether or not the person intending to do harm happens to be Muslim.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 4, 2013

Mon Feb. 4, 2013 11:00 AM PST

Cpl. Neil N. Sookdeo, center, teaches a shooter the proper pistol shooting position during the Far East Division Matches Jan. 23 at Camp Schwab.  U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Erik S. Brooks Jr.

 

Michigan Tea Partier: Charter Schools Are for Kids From "Ethnically Challenged Families"

| Mon Feb. 4, 2013 10:03 AM PST
Anti-right-to-work protest signs wait for protesters to take them before the march to the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, in December 2012.

A few weeks ago, the Michigan chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed conservative advocacy group, held a "citizen watchdog training" in a suburb of Detroit. The training was billed as a workshop for regular folks to learn "the best tools and techniques in investigative journalism, social media, and opposition research." Featured speakers—including local activists, conservative state legislators, and Scott Hagerstrom, AFP-Michigan's director—would also speak about efforts to "reform" Michigan's schools.

Among the AFP set, reforming public schools usually means converting them into non-union, privately-run charter schools. Nationally, AFP is a vocal proponent of charters and "school choice." And at the Michigan citizens training, one of the featured speakers, Norm Hughes, a member of the North Oakland Tea Party Patriots, offered this take on charters:

Kids aren't going to charter schools if they're "A" students. They go to charter schools because they're failing students and, by and large, the charter schools have a higher percentage of poor families, ethnically challenged families…

Ethnically challenged? Hughes did not explain what he meant, but you won't find that take on charters anywhere in the AFP literature. (Listen here to the audio of Hughes' comment, grabbed by Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group.)

Whatever Holmes' view of charters, AFP's agenda in Michigan is cause for concern for Michigan's public schools and teachers unions. AFP played a central role in ramming through so-called right-to-work legislation for public- and private-sector workers in Michigan in December. Right-to-work legislation is central to AFP's agenda, and its passage in Michigan, a cradle of organized labor, was a major victory for movement conservatives.

If the January 19 event is any indication, a big push for charters is next up for AFP and its allies in the Michigan legislature. But before they go whole-hog on charters, AFP conservatives might want to give their conservative bedfellows, like Norm Hughes, a few tips about messaging.

The Trouble With the SEC's "Cars"

| Mon Feb. 4, 2013 8:23 AM PST

On Monday, we posted my story on high-speed trading from the January/February print issue of Mother Jones. (Read it!) Here's the nut:

As technology has ushered in a brave new world on Wall Street, the nation's watchdogs remain behind the curve, unable to effectively monitor, much less regulate, today's markets. As in 2008, when regulators only seemed to realize after the fact the threat posed by the toxic stew of securitization, the financial whiz kids are again one step—or leap—ahead...

...[Knight Capital's big loss on August 1] wasn't the worst-case scenario. Not even close. A lot of high-frequency trading is done by small proprietary trading firms, subject to less oversight than brand name financial institutions. But big banks have also tried to get in on the act. Imagine a runaway algorithm at a too-big-to-fail company like Bank of America, which manages trillions, not billions, in assets. Or, says Bill Black, a former federal regulator who helped investigate the S&L crisis of the '80s and '90s, imagine trading algorithms causing "a series of cascade failures"—like the domino effect that followed Lehman's collapse. "If enough of these bad things occur at the same time," he says, "financial institutions can begin to fail, even very large ones." It's not a question of whether this will happen, Black warns. "It is a question of when."

Years of mistakes and bad decisions led to the 2008 collapse. But when the next crisis happens, it may not develop over months, weeks, or even days. It could take seconds.

One quote I couldn't fit in the final story illuminates the point that the nation's watchdogs are behind the curve. When I asked Gregg Berman, the Securities and Exchange Commission expert who headed the agency's inquiry into the flash crash, how he'd describe the SEC's role, he responded with an extended metaphor:

Berman compares the agency's role in the marketplace to how traffic laws are created and enforced. A town can pass rules setting speed limits that take into account traffic flow and safety, and patrol officers can use radar guns to measure the speed of individual cars, issuing tickets when violations occur. But the officer is not actually in the car and cannot step on the brake pedal as soon as the driver begins to violate the speed limit. Similarly, the SEC is not generally an active market participant "steering the car" in real time. Instead, it acts through policies that do act in real time. For example, the single-stock circuit breakers, put in place after the flash crash, are designed to automatically hit the brakes and halt trading under disorderly market conditions, akin to programing the car to hit the brakes automatically when a potential collision is detected.

That the SEC isn't "in the car," steering in real time, is obvious to anyone who works in finance—as Berman notes, the agency is limited to accident-avoidance technologies that are programmed in advance. It's obvious why this is: Giving the SEC the ability to monitor and shut down trading in real time would be enormously expensive and would likely slow down trading considerably. (Imagine if someone sitting in the passenger seat while you drive, with their own wheel and set of brakes. You probably wouldn't like it.)

To the uninitiated, though, this point might seem pretty scary. The SEC is relying on automatic measures—designed in response to the last disaster—to slam on the brakes if a potential collision is detected. But the "cars" (trading firms) are hurtling down highways faster than ever before, and many of them are being "driven" by robots—sophisticated trading algorithms that buy and sell securities automatically, without human intervention.

One crash, and the demise of one trading firm, isn't such a big deal. But what about a chain-reaction crash? What about a multi-car pileup?

Here's the bottom line: If the SEC's automatic measures fail, it won't be able to react in time to avert a crisis. It will only be able to come in after the fact and try to clean up the mess. We accept this sort of thing when it comes to cars. But even the largest of car crashes can't wreak the kind of economic havoc that a series of cascade failures in the market could.