Mojo - February 2013

Mother Jones' David Corn Wins George Polk Award

| Mon Feb. 18, 2013 1:02 AM EST

How is MoJo Washington Bureau Chief David Corn like Edward R. Murrow, Carl Bernstein, David Halberstam, Gay Talese, Fred Friendly, I.F. Stone, and Walter Cronkite? So many ways really, but the most notable today is that they have all won a George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious honors in journalism. Corn is the winner in the political reporting category for the 47 percent story—his revelation of a video documenting Mitt Romney's remarks at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans were "dependent upon the government" and would never "take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

The Polk award, established in 1949 to honor a CBS correspondent murdered while covering the Greek Civil War, is given each year by Long Island University; this year's announcement commends Corn for the "years of high-impact journalism that helped lead him to the source of the recording," and for the "persistent digging and careful negotiation" that made the story possible. Other winners include the staff of Bloomberg News and the New York Times' David Barboza for uncovering corruption among China's elite; a team of McClatchy correspondents (including former MoJo contributor David Enders) covering the war in Syria; Sarah Stillman for her New Yorker piece on teen informants; Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch for a story on abuses in state clinics for the disabled; and the Frontline team behind the documentary "Money, Power, and Wall Street." For David and all of us at Mother Jones, it's a capstone for an amazing year and thrilling recognition for a project that has been widely credited with changing the course of the campaign.

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Here's Why Obama Won't Say Whether He Can Kill You With a Drone: Because He Probably Can

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 5:38 PM EST

During a Google+ "Fireside Hangout" Thursday evening, President Barack Obama was asked if he believed he has the authority to authorize a drone strike against an American citizen on US soil.

He didn't exactly answer the question.

The Council on Foreign Relations' Micah Zenko transcribed the whole exchange. Lee Doren, a conservative activist, asked the question; here's Obama's answer:

First of all, I think, there’s never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil. And, you know, we respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside the United States. The rules outside the United States are going to be different then the rules inside the United States. In part because our capacity to, for example, to capture a terrorist inside the United States are very different then in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan.

But what I think is absolutely true is that it is not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we are doing the right thing. I am the head of the executive branch. And what we've done so far is to try to work with Congress on oversight issues. But part of what I am going to have to work with congress on is to make sure that whatever it is we’re providing congress, that we have mechanisms to also make sure that the public understands what’s going on, what the constraints are, what the legal parameters are. And that is something that I take very seriously. I am not someone who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants, or whatever she wants, whenever they want, just under the guise of counterterrorism. There have to be legal checks and balances on it.

Doren isn't the only one who wants an answer to this question. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has placed a hold on John Brennan, Obama's nominee for CIA director, "until [Brennan] answers the question of whether or not the President can kill American citizens through the drone strike program on U.S. soil." Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) posed that exact question to Brennan in a written questionnaire, but his answer was as opaque as Obama's. "This Administration has not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and has no intention of doing so," Brennan wrote. 

So why didn't Obama just say, "no, the president cannot deploy drone strikes against US citizens on American soil"? Because the answer is probably "yes." That may not be as apocalyptically sinister as it sounds.

"Certainly, we routinely 'targeted' U.S. citizens during the Civil War," says Steve Vladeck, a law professor at American University's Washington College of Law. "Even if the targeting was with imprecise 19th-century artillery as opposed to 21st-century [unmanned arial vehicles]." If he had the technology, President Abraham Lincoln would most likely have been within his authority to send a drone to vaporize Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Drone strikes in the modern context, however, aren't being used against uniformed commanders of a traditional military force. Instead, we're talking about strikes that target individuals suspected of being part of terrorist organizations where "membership" is an inherently more nebulous concept. 

There are two government agencies known to conduct drone strikes, the CIA and the Department of Defense. CIA involvement in a domestic drone strike is probably off-limits, says Paul Pillar, a former CIA official who is now a professor at Georgetown University. The idea is really far-fetched anyway, Pillar argues. "I expect that if the CIA were to do anything like that within the U.S. it probably would violate some of the legal restrictions that are placed on all of the agency's activities as far as inside-U.S. operations are concerned," Pillar wrote in an email to Mother Jones. "Nothing like this is ever going to arise as far as drone strikes are concerned, so I don't see it as a live issue."

Since the CIA is probably out, that leaves the military. Congress has long held that the president has the authority to use the military domestically in some circumstances. The Posse Comitatus Act, passed after Reconstruction to limit the use of military force on US soil, states that the military can be used to enforce the law "in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress." The last time this happened was 1992 when, citing the Insurrection Act, President George H.W. Bush called out the National Guard to suppress the Los Angeles riots in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict.

According to US law, Congress can authorize the use of the military inside the US. The question is whether the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, counts as "express authorization" to carry out a targeted killing on US soil. The Obama administration stated in its white paper explaining its legal authority to kill US citizens abroad that capturing a suspected terrorist should be "infeasible" before a strike is authorized. But "the government's going to have a devil of a time proving that capture is infeasible for any individual found within the territorial United States," Vladeck says. And there's no reason to believe that local or state authorities, or if necessary the FBI, wouldn't be left to handle a situation involving suspected terrorists. (Local police dropped a bomb during an armed standoff with the radical group MOVE in Philadelphia in 1985, proving that civilian authorities can be just as lethal as the military.)

The law says military force can sometimes be used against people on American soil, such as if it were needed to fight an armed domestic insurgency. But we still don't know how broad the Obama administration thinks that authority is. Less than a week before President George W. Bush left office, the Justice Department withdrew a series of memos written by torture memo author John Yoo that envisioned near-dictatorial authority for the president, including the authority to deploy military force against terrorism suspects inside the US. Yoo had basically given Bush the executive branch equivalent of the Konami Code

The Bush Justice Department argued that Yoo's theories should no longer "be treated as authoritative for any purpose." The question is whether the Obama administration has envisioned similar authority for itself. The answer to that question lies in the classified documents explaining the Obama administration's legal rationale for the targeted killing program—documents that the Obama administration has so far refused to fully disclose to Congress, let alone release to the public.

Georgia Legislators Propose Ending Direct Election of Senators—Why Not Just Get Rid of the Senate?

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 1:45 PM EST
Atlanta skyline at dusk.

It is a matter of public record that the United States Senate is a terrible place where serious policy issues are ignored; routine votes are occasionally delayed over concerns about non-existent terrorist groups; and proverbial cans are proverbially kicked down the proverbial road of sadness, gridlock, and despair.

What's less clear is why the Senate is such a congress of louts. Is it the endless pressure to raise money? The never-ending campaign? The fact that Americans hold lots of substantive disagreements on important things and are themselves—it's been said—somewhat dysfunctional?

Actually, according to Georgia state Rep. Buzz Brockaway, the biggest problem with the Senate is that it's democratically elected. Brockaway, a Republican, has introduced a bill in the state legislature to repeal the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct election of senators, and instead restore the responsibility of choosing members to state legislatures (as was the process until 1913).

The bill, HR 273, laments that "the Seventeenth Amendment has resulted in a large federal government with power and control that cannot be checked by the states," and suggests that "the original purpose of the United States Senate was to protect the sovereignty of the states from the federal government and to give each individual state government representation in the federal legislative branch of government."

If the bill passed, Georgia would be the first state to endorse repealing the 17th Amendment, but the idea has gained traction among conservatives over the last few decades. Texas Gov. Rick Perry supports it; so do GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Flake of Arizona. (Republican Indiana Sen. candidate Richard Mourdock endorsed the idea during his campaign last year, before, in an ironic twist, losing the popular vote.) As Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald noted in 2012, conservatives blame the 17th Amendment for trampling over the rights of states by changing the constituency to which senators are accountable.

Of course, introducing a bill is the easy part. Getting voters to agree to give up their right to vote will probably be a tough sell.

FreedomWorks Is "Freaking Out" Over the Giant-Panda-Hillary-Clinton-Sex Video

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 12:33 PM EST

The story revealing that FreedomWorks produced a video with an obscene scene featuring a giant panda, Hillary Clinton, and oral sex created quite a stir and, according to former officials of the influential tea party group, had staffers at the conservative advocacy group and super-PAC "freaking out," as one put it. That was to be expected, especially since FreedomWorks is the target of an internal investigation mounted by its board of trustees after board members received "allegations of wrongdoing by the organization or its employees," according to a letter the board sent in December to Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. That probe is being conducted by two lawyers: Alfred Regnery, long a prominent figure in the conservative movement, and David Martin.

Readers of Thursday's article may have noticed that Kibbe, Adam Brandon, the executive vice president of the group (who appeared in the obscene video), and Jackie Bodnar, the director of communications for FreedomWorks, did not respond to repeated requests from Mother Jones for comments (and an explanation) regarding the bizarre video. James Burnley IV, one of the two trustees who initiated the internal inquiry, did offer a comment that suggested he might not have known of the video and that the investigation might have not yet learned of it. (Former FreedomWorks officials note that the production of the video could have entailed sexual harassment, given that two female interns were asked to play the roles of the giant panda and Hillary Clinton and act out a pretend sex scene.)

After the story was posted, the FreedomWorks gang was still officially keeping mum about the giant-panda-Hillary-Clinton-sex video. I did send Burnley this query, which referred to C. Boyden Gray, another board of trustees member:

Now that the allegations regarding the video are public, do you and C. Boyden Gray intend to ask Alfred Regnery and David Martin to investigate them?

So far, no response from Burnley. Yet two former FreedomWorks officials say that they believe Regnery and Martin will have no choice but to add the panda-Clinton-sex video to their to-do list.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 15, 2013

Fri Feb. 15, 2013 12:00 PM EST

U.S. soldiers patrol down a mountain after visiting an Afghan border police observation point in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jon Heinrich.

Under Obama, Feds Holster Gun Cases

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Despite the amped-up claims that President Obama is just waiting to crack down on gun owners, a new report reveals that his administration has been pursuing significantly fewer gun crimes than the predeceeding one. Under Obama, federal weapons prosecutions have declined to their lowest levels nearly a decade, according to a new report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group associated with Syracuse University.

After 9/11, the Bush administration's firearms prosecutions shot up, peaking at about 11,000 cases in 2004. In 2012, the feds prosecuted fewer than 8,000 gun cases:

TRAC

The prosecutions' most common target are felons who illegally possess or sell weapons—not legal owners or sellers who run afoul of the law. And, TRAC notes, counting on federal prosecutions misses the majority of gun cases: "Because of the very different number of the enforcers and prosecutors working at the two levels, state and local gun prosecutions almost certainly dwarf anything that is done by the federal government."

It's not entirely clear how the gun lobby's efforts to hamstring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives's ability to enforce weapons laws has influenced the decline in gun cases. But of the 3,741 weapons cases referred to federal attorneys in 2012 that weren't investigated, about 40 percent were determined to lack sufficient evidence to pursue. And since 2005, the number of cases referred by the ATF has exceeded the number of weapons crimes prosecuted by federal authorities.

TRAC

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Universal Preschool? Not So Fast

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST

On Tuesday, President Obama first proposed to "make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America." Like many ideas that get floated during the State of the Union, the plan could've withered from there. As Gail Collins described in the New York Times, one of the earliest victories of the new right was destroying a preschool proposal that made it through Congress in 1971. No president has seriously tried to pitch universal preschool, or a similarly ambitious plan for early education, since.

But the president promoted universal pre-K again during a visit to an early childhood center in Decatur, Georgia, on Thursday, as the White House rolled out an ambitious plan to give states money to expand preschool access for kids from low- and middle-income families, and grow several federal programs that focus on health and early education for infants, toddlers, and pregnant moms.

Mounting research indicates that preschool pays off for kids from low-income families, not just in terms of better grades and academics in school but also, as Kevin Drum noted, in important life gains. The kids who who attended the HighScope Perry pre-K program in Ypsilanti, Michigan—which Obama was likely referencing during SOTU when he threw out that early education provides a $7 return on the dollar—were as adults more likely to be employed, less likely to have committed crimes, and made more money than a control group. The idea that pre-K is a good public investment, even "a better investment than the stock market," as the Washington Post argued yesterday, is becoming increasingly popular in Washington. But some experts argue that there are better ways to improve pre-K for kids from low-income families than the White House's new strategy.

Your Longreads Guide to Guns

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST
longreads logo

"I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence," President Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. "But this time is different." In light of the national debate set off by the massacre in Newtown, here are six stories about guns that will take you from the annals of the NRA to the Vietnam war to the US-Mexico border.

For more MoJo staffers' long-form favorites, visit our longreads.com page. Take a look at some of our own reporters' longreads here and follow @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter for the latest. And for additional in-depth reporting on gun laws and mass shootings in America, check out Mother Jones' yearlong investigation.


"The NRA vs. America" | Tim Dickinson | Rolling Stone | January 2013

While the National Rifle Association claims to represent more than 4 million "marksmen, hunters, and responsible gun owners," recent polls show its politics are out of whack with those of most Americans, gun owners included. Some observers believe that the NRA and its lightning rod of a front man, Wayne LaPierre, essentially acts as a lobbying outfit for the powerful firearms industry.

In more than three decades of service to the NRA, Wayne LaPierre has done more than any other man alive to make America safe for crazed gunmen to build warlike arsenals and unleash terror on innocents at movie theaters and elementary schools. In the 1980s, he helped craft legislation to roll back gun control passed in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations. And since the late 1990s, twice he has destroyed political deals that might have made it hugely difficult for accused killers like Holmes and Lanza to get their hands on their weapons.

The Pistorius Case and South Africa's Gun Problem

| Thu Feb. 14, 2013 5:24 PM EST

South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, has been charged with murder for shooting his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, early this morning. While initial reports suggested that the 26-year-old athlete had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar, the BBC reported that authorities were skeptical: "Police say neighbours heard screaming and shouting around the time of the shooting, and that they had been called to investigate incidents of a domestic nature at the same house in the past."

Pistorius' ownership of and affinity for guns has been well documented by journalists, including the New York Times Magazine's Michael Sokolove and others. Check out this tweet from last November:

(Following the shooting, Nike pulled a South African TV ad featuring Pistorius and the tagline "I am the bullet in the chamber.")

The shooting is the most high-profile case from a country that, like the United States, has recently grappled with the impact of its well-established gun culture. Interestingly, firearms are not mentioned in the South African constitution, and a tough gun control law was passed in 2000. When it went into effect five years later, it put a five-gun limit on most citizens, allowing just one gun per person for self-defense purposes. As the Times explained:

But getting any gun at all, critics say, is the big task. Guns are to be automatically denied to drug or alcohol abusers, spouse abusers, people inclined to violence or "deviant behavior" and anyone who has been imprisoned for violent or sex-related crimes. The police interview three acquaintances of each applicant before deciding whether he or she is competent to own a gun. Prospective gun owners must pass a firearms course. They also must install a safe or strongbox that meets police standards for gun storage.

South Africa now ranks 50th in the world in gun ownership rates, and gun-related crime has dropped 21 percent since 2004-05. Shooting murders of women, particularly by their partners, has dropped, as shown by this chart from a 2012 report (PDF) by the South African Medical Research Council. (Murders by partners are called "intimate femicides.")

Gun homicides

Still, in 2007, the country's gun homicide rate was among the highest in the world, ranking 12th at 17 gun murders annually per 100,000 people. To put that statistic in context: In 2007, there were 8,319 gun deaths murders in South Africa, a country of roughly 49 million people. The United States—No. 1 in gun ownership, and with more than six times as many people—had 9,960 gun deaths homicides in 2012.

In many ways, American and South African gun culture and gun violence are quite different. But the possibility that Pistorius intentionally shot and killed Steenkamp brings to mind two of the most prominent pro-gun myths: namely, that keeping a gun at home makes you and your loved ones safer, and that guns make women safer.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 14, 2013

Thu Feb. 14, 2013 11:21 AM EST

A Marine deployed with Combat Logistics Regiment 15, 1st Marine Logistics Group, kisses his wife during a homecoming aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. Marines and sailors with CLR-15 were deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Laura Gauna.