Mojo - March 2013

John Yoo to Rand Paul: Leave Barack Obama Alone on Targeted Killing!

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 5:23 PM EST

John Yoo, the author of the Bush administration legal memos justifying the use of torture, thinks President Obama is really getting too much grief over targeted killing. And he wants Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—who filibustered Obama's nominee to head the CIA for 13 hours on Wednesday—to lay off.

"I admire libertarians but I think Rand Paul's filibuster in many ways is very much what libertarians do, they make these very symbolic gestures, standing for some extreme position," said Yoo, now a UC Berkeley law professor, who once suggested it was okay for the president to order a child's testicles be crushed. Referring to Paul's marathon filibuster, an attempt to force the Obama administration to clarify its views on the use of military force against terror suspects in the United States, Yoo said "It sort of reminds me of young kids when they first read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged and they suddenly think that federal taxation equals slavery and they're not going to pay any federal taxes anymore." Yoo's statements were made on a conference call Thursday held by the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal organization.

Paul's conservative colleagues also pushed back on him on Thursday: On the Senate floor, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) mocked Paul's objections as "ridiculous."

Yoo said that he thought the administration's problems stemmed from its belief that it needed to provide "due process" to terror suspects abroad—or even in the United States, referring to a recently leaked white paper outlining the Obama administration's legal views on targeted killings of US citizen terror suspects. Indicative of how the debate over Obama's counterterrorism policies has scrambled the usual partisan divides, Yoo said he agreed with the conclusion reached in Attorney General Eric Holder's letter to Paul earlier in the week suggesting that the president could order the use of military force on US soil under certain extreme circumstances. "I think it's right if an American joins an enemy with which we are at war he is or she is a valid target as an enemy combatant. That's been the rule throughout our history," Yoo said. "People in the Civil War were all American citizens, but the ones who took up arms were members of the enemy."

In the event of an attack similar to the one that occurred in Mumbai, India in 2008, Yoo said, "we would expect that our government would respond to those attacks not just by sending out the police but by sending out the military if necessary. If you could use force in that situation you could use drones just like you could use snipers or combat troops."

Also on the conference call were American University School of Law professor Steve Vladeck and former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy, a writer for National Review.

Referring to an exchange between Attorney General Holder and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over whether an American terror suspect "sitting in a cafe" in the United States could be targeted in a drone strike, McCarthy took Holder's side. Holder had said it would be "inappropriate" to use lethal force under such circumstances; pressed by Cruz Holder agreed it would be unconstitutional.

"I had sympathy for Attorney General Holder yesterday, particularly when he was being browbeaten by Senator Cruz," said McCarthy, who has alleged that the Obama administration is being controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. "I understood why the attorney general was reluctant to use the label unconstitutional, and substitute it with something that was more equivocal."

Holder sent a brief letter to Paul Thursday afternoon designed to address the concerns Paul expressed during his filibuster"Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" Holder asked. "The answer is no."

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Elizabeth Warren Slams Federal Regulators Over Bank Money Laundering

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 4:56 PM EST

On Thursday, the Senate held a hearing to ask federal regulators why they are not stopping banks from allowing money laundering. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was the highlight of the show, slamming a Treasury official who refused to weigh in on whether the banks should face more severe penalties.

In December, the giant international bank HSBC was fined $1.9 billion for illegally allowing millions in Mexican drug trafficking money to be laundered through its accounts. But it's not just HSBC—this is a systemic problem. Ten banks have been penalized in recent years for failure to comply with anti-money laundering rules. The Senate banking committee held the hearing in order to interrogate regulators at the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency about why they are not doing more to stop these kinds of shenanigans.

All of the regulators said they were working on improving regulations and enforcement and protested that it was up to the Department of Justice—not them—to decide whether prosecution was appropriate. (The Justice Department did not have a witness at the hearing.) They were reluctant to weigh in on whether they thought HSBC should have faced trial, even though they consult closely with the DOJ on bank activities. That infuriated Warren:

The US government takes money laundering very seriously for a good reason. And it puts strong penalties in place… It's possible to shut down a bank... Individuals can be banned from ever participating in financial services again.  And people can be sent to prison. in December, HSBC admitted to... laundering $881 million that we know of... They didn't do it just one time... They did it over and over and over again… They were caught doing it, warned not to do it, and kept right on doing it. And evidently made profits doing it. Now, HSBC paid a fine, but no individual went to trial. No individual was banned from banking and there was no hearing to consider shutting down HSBC's actives in the US.... You're the experts on money laundering. I'd like your opinion. What does it take? How many billions of dollars do you have to launder for drug lords and how many sanctions do you have to violate before someone will consider shutting down a financial institution like this?

David Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at Treasury, responded that his department had imposed on HSBC "the largest penalties we've imposed on any financial institution."

Warren got annoyed. "I'm asking: what does it take to get you to move towards even a hearing to consider shutting down operations for money laundering?" she said.

Cohen kept evading and Warren got more annoyed. "I'm not hearing your opinion on this," she said. "What does it take even to say, 'here's where the line is'? Draw a line, and if you cross that line you're at risk for having the bank closed."

Cohen said he had views, but couldn't get into it.

"It's somewhere beyond $881 million in drug money," Warren concluded on her own, and went on to spell out the injustice of it all. "If you're caught with an ounce of cocaine, you're going to go to jail... But if you launder nearly a billion dollars for international cartels and violate sanctions you pay a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed a night."

"How would you explain this to your neighbor?" Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) asked, noting that the fine slapped on HSBC amounted to about one percent of its profits over 10 years. "Does that really send a message?"

The regulators reiterated they were working on improving oversight and such, but admitted that they were not doing enough. Jerome Powell, who is on the board of governors at the Federal Reserve, conceded that big banks may not only be too big to to fail, but also too big to prosecute. "Until we finish [writing the rules implementing Dodd-Frank financial reform law] I couldn't look [my neighbor] in the eye… I don't think it's fair."

Organizing for Action, Obama's Big-Money Muscle, Will Reject Corporate and Foreign Money

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 3:52 PM EST
OFA director Jim Messina.

Liberals agree: Organizing for Action, the pro-Obama nonprofit formed out of the president's reelection campaign, has an admirable goal—helping Obama enact his second-term agenda, which includes gun-control measures, immigration reform, and new action on climate change. OFA's problem, in their eyes, is how it plans to meet that goal. 

Early news stories revealed that OFA planned to raise $50 million, much of it in big donations, from individuals, corporations, and unions. OFA would also disclose the names of its donors and fundraisers quarterly but without saying precisely how much they'd chipped in. In response, liberal campaign finance groups howled; one, Common Cause, publicly urged Obama to shut down OFA.

OFA has heard the complaints. Today, in a CNN.com op-ed, OFA director Jim Messina laid out the case for OFA and clarified that the group would not accept any money from corporations, foreign sources, or federally-registered lobbyists. OFA will also disclose, every four months, the exact amount given by every donor who chips in more than $250.

That's more than previously expected of OFA, and the group's critics are encouraged by Messina's pledge. Common Cause president Bob Edgar praised the move, but added OFA should go even further by putting a cap on how much a single donor can give and throwing its organizing muscle behind new campaign finance regulations. "That means getting behind legislation like the DISCLOSE Act, supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and rein in runaway political spending, and developing a new, small-donor public funding system that lets candidates break their dependence on big money," Edgar said in a statement sent to reporters.

OFA, as Politico's Ken Vogel points out, has already benefited from in-kind corporate support. January's "Road Ahead" conference, where OFA was first unveiled to a hand-picked group of big-wig Democratic fundraisers, was sponsored by a group called Business Forward, which receives money from Microsoft, Walmart, and other corporations. 

OFA's ban on lobbyist money may be hard to enforce. President Obama imposed a similar ban on donations from lobbyists for his reelection campaign, yet the New York Times reported in October 2011 that the campaign's corps of elite fundraisers included at least 15 people involved in lobbying. Those fundraisers were not federally registered lobbyists, but fit the description of your typical Washington lobbyist. One such fundraiser, Sally Susman, raised more than $500,000 and at the same time ran Pfizer's lobbying office; another, David Cohen, ran Comcast's lobbying shop.

Messina also used his CNN op-ed to take a stab at addressing one of the biggest criticisms of OFA: that it was a vehicle for selling access to the president. One report said that donors and fundraisers who ponied up $500,000 or more would get quarterly meetings with Obama. In his op-ed, Messina writes, "Whether you're a volunteer or a donor, we can't and we won't guarantee access to any government officials." But he adds: "Just as the president and administration officials deliver updates on the legislative process to Americans and organizations across the ideological spectrum, there may be occasions when members of Organizing for Action are included in those updates.​" 

That's hardly a full-throated rebuttal.  

Attorney General: Obama Can't Order Drone Attack on Americans on US Soil

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 2:49 PM EST
Attorney General Eric Holder testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It took Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) filibustering for 13 straight hours, but the White House has finally clarified that President Barack Obama cannot order a drone strike on an American citizen on American soil. In a curt, 43-word letter, Attorney General Eric Holder clarified the administration's stance. 

"It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: "Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" Holder wrote. "The answer to that question is no."

Holder had previously stated in a letter to Paul that he believed it would be appropriate to use deadly military force on American soil in two "catastrophic" scenarios—namely another Pearl Harbor or 9/11.

"Nobody questions if planes are flying towards the Twin Towers whether they can be repulsed by the military," Paul said during his filibuster Wednesday. "Nobody questions whether a terrorist with a rocket launcher or a grenade launcher is attacking us, whether they can be repelled."

Paul had also asked during his filibuster whether an Arab American "sitting in a cafeteria in Dearborn, Michigan," and suspected of ties to terror could be targeted with lethal force by a drone. "As for Paul and Holder, I suspect they're in complete agreement on the 'café' hypothetical—but who isn't?" says Steve Vladeck, a professor at American University School of Law. "This isn't about cafés—it's about dirt roads in northern Yemen."

Here's Holder's letter:

 

Known and Suspected Terrorists Can Buy Guns in America

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 1:42 PM EST

Under current federal law, being a known or suspected terrorist doesn't disqualify you from buying guns and explosives. A Democratic Senator has introduced a bill that would close what he calls the "Terror Gap."

On Tuesday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), reintroduced the bill—it's called the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act—saying in a statement, "our gun laws have gaping holes that allow known and suspected terrorists to walk into a gun store and leave with legally purchased deadly weapons."

Right now, people on terrorism watch lists often aren't allowed to get on planes, but the federal government is has no way to stop them from buying weapons unless a background check shows they are prohibited for another reason, like if they are mentally ill, or an undocumented immigrant, or have a criminal record. Lautenberg's bill would give the Attorney General the authority to stop the sale of guns or bombs when a background check shows that the purchaser is a known or suspected terrorist, and the AG "reasonably believes" that the person may use the weapon in connection with a plot against Americans. (One problem: many people on terror watch lists are not in fact terrorists.)

According to the Government Accountability Office, people on the terror watch lists were cleared to proceed with a weapons purchase ninety-one percent of the time, a total of 1,321 times, between February 2004 and December 2010. Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter, for example, had ties with Yemen-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

"This is common-sense legislation that does not infringe on a gun-owner’s rights, and will protect our troops and our nation," the veterans group Vet Voice Foundation said in a press release in February.

Not shockingly, the bill has broad bi-partisan support in both chambers. The Bush administration endorsed the legislation. The NRA, however, opposes the measure. In 2011, the gun rights group said the bill was "aimed primarily at law-abiding American gun owners." The no-guns-for-terrorists bill has been reintroduced for years and has gone nowhere.

Lautenberg says he hopes the proposal will be included in the package of gun measures now being considered in Congress. "From attacks on Ft. Hood to Mumbai, terror plots carried out using guns and readily available explosives are more and more common," Lautenberg said, "and we must act to stop terrorists from getting these weapons and killing Americans."

Texas Rep. Wants a George W. Bush National Park

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 11:37 AM EST
Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush commemorate the opening of the George W. Bush Childhood Home museum.

President George W. Bush gutted environmental standards, ignored the threat of climate change, and presided over a scandal-plagued Department of the Interior*—making him a natural choice to be the central focus of America's next national park.

According to the Abilene (Texas) Reporter News, that's exactly GOP Rep. Mike Conaway wants. Conaway, a former business partner of Bush who represents the former president's hometown of Midland, secured a $25,000 federal grant for a "reconnaissance survey" of Bush's childhood home earlier this year:

The reconnaissance survey "will merely examine whether the site is worthy of inclusion," Conaway said Monday in a statement.

Conaway of Midland requested the study "on behalf of proud Texans who wish to see the home of two American presidents elevated to national status and become part of the National Park System" in an Aug. 27 letter to now outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

It's not as ridiculous as it sounds. President Bill Clinton's childhood home in Hope, Ark. was officially dedicated as a national park in 2011. Even James Buchanan, who is held in even worse esteem among historians than Bush, has a place of honor in Lancaster, Penn. And Bush's home in Midland has already been converted into a private museum. The museum is currently looking for someone to donate a vintage washing machine, and even has an online store which sells marbles, for some reason:

George W. Bush Childhood Home

In that light, the George W. Bush National Park is probably inevitable. But look on the bright side: This would be the perfect place to display those paintings.

*In fairness, this describes the Department of the Interior for most of its existence.

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What the Washington Post Didn't Tell You About the Daily Caller's Senate Sex Story

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)

On Monday, the Washington Post published an article that undermined a November report from the conservative Daily Caller alleging that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) stiffed two prostitutes who had provided services to him during a trip to the Dominican Republic. Menendez has repeatedly denied the Caller's account, and the Post noted that one of the two women said she was paid to make up the claims and had never met the senator. The paper reported:

The woman said a local lawyer had approached her and a fellow escort and asked them to help frame Menendez and a top donor, Salomon Melgen, according to affidavits obtained by the Washington Post. That lawyer has in turn identified a second Dominican lawyer who he said gave the woman a script and paid her to read the claims aloud. The first lawyer said he found out only later that the remarks would be videotaped and used against Menendez, the affidavits say.

In its November story, the Caller reported that the two women were represented by attorney Melanio Figueroa, but provided no details about this lawyer. And the Washington Post report did not mention him by name. Yet Figueroa does have a public profile. He was once an aide to a former president of the Dominican Republic whom Menendez had publicly criticized. This raises an obvious question: Was the Caller drawn into an a politically motivated scheme?

VIDEO: Heartwarming Story About Student's Sex Change Surgery Was Misunderstanding, College Says

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 7:33 PM EST

UPDATE: Collins posted a statement to his Indiegogo fundraising page on Wednesday night explaining that he received "very unexpected news regarding his insurance claim." Collins reports that his insurance will be covering most of the cost of his breast removal procedure, except for $2,000 needed for his co-pay, travel and care expenses. He says the rest of the money the fraternity raised (about $18,000) will be going to the Jim Collins Foundation, a charity that provides financial assistance for transgender patients. In a video Collins posted on YouTube last night, he said, "It's been a really incredible experience...I honestly couldn't be happier with the way things are turning out. Also, the Ironman 3 trailer came out! Which I'm super excited about."

Donnie Collins, a 19-year-old transgender student at Emerson College in Boston, was rejected by his student insurance when he tried to apply for sex reassignment surgery, so brothers at the fraternity he was pledging pitched in to raise money for the operation, according to a heartwarming story published last week by ABC News. But Wednesday, a spokesperson for the university told Mother Jones that, in fact, Collins' surgery was covered by his student health insurance all along, and the rejection was a mistake by the insurance company. 

"Emerson College is pleased to have confirmation that its policy with Aetna will cover Donnie Collins' surgery," Carole McFall, a spokesperson for Emerson, told Mother Jones. "After the rejection of his initial request, the college contacted Aetna for clarification—knowing that transgender benefits have been part of its insurance policy with Aetna since 2006. The conversations that followed led to the discovery that the policy language had inadvertently not been updated by Aetna on their internal documents. This inaccuracy led to the rejection of coverage."

McFall adds that all treatments related to transgender patients are covered, including hormone treatment (which Collins' mother's insurance did not cover) and surgery, but could not comment immediately on whether that policy also applies to staff. As the New York Times reported, at least 36 other universities already offer insurance coverage with transgender benefits for students. McFall says Emerson was one of the first universities to do so, and expects that Phi Alpha Tau (which is a "professional communicative arts fraternity" and not a traditional national Greek organization) will issue a statement about the news this evening. The organization already told ABC News that it plans to donate excess funds raised to the Jim Collins Foundation, which provides financial assistance for transgender patients.

 

Republican Senator Filibusters Obama's CIA Nominee Over Drones

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 7:12 PM EST

UPDATE: Senator Paul ended his filibuster after midnight on Thursday after nearly 13 hours. As Paul ended his filibuster, he said “I would go for another 12 hours to try to break Strom Thurmond’s record, but I’ve discovered that there are some limits to filibustering and I’m going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here." In order to hold the Senate floor, Paul was not permitted to even sit down, let alone leave to go to the bathroom.

On Wednesday, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) engaged in a marathon filibuster of John Brennan, Obama's nominee to head the CIA, protesting the administration's policy on the use of drones in lethal operations. Paul began speaking at noon and was still filibustering six hours later. 

"I will speak until I can no longer speak," Paul said. "I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court." Paul also criticized the administration's rationale for targeting American terror suspects overseas, as laid out in a recently leaked white paper.

Paul has been pressing the Obama administration for weeks to answer if it believes the president has the authority to order a drone strike on American soil. On Tuesday, Paul received a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder stating that, in certain "extraordinary circumstances," such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks, military force could be used domestically. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Jon Cornyn (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) joined Paul's filibuster, although Wyden reiterated his intention to vote for Brennan's confirmation. The administration recently agreed to allow senators on the intelligence committee access to the legal memos justifying the use of lethal force against American terror suspects. 

"That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco, or in a restaurant in Houston, or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination," Paul said. "It is something that should not and can not be tolerated in our country…Has America the beautiful become Alice's Wonderland?" Paul also criticized the use of signature strikes—lethal operations targeted at anonymous individuals abroad who are believed to be terrorists based on a "pattern of behavior."

During a Senate judiciary committee hearing held earlier Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked Holder whether he believed that it would be constitutional for the president to order a drone strike on an American citizen suspected of terrorism in the United States who was "sitting quietly at a café." After a lengthy back and forth, during which Holder said that he did not think it would be "appropriate" to use lethal force in such a circumstance, and Cruz pressed him on whether that meant "unconstitutional," Holder acknowledged that he did not think it would be constitutional. "Translate my 'appropriate' to 'no,'" Holder said. "No." Holder said he didn't believe the letter he had sent to Paul was inconsistent with that answer. 

Later on during the oversight hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Holder if it would be constitutional for the US military to fire on a hijacked civilian plane that was aimed at the White House. Holder said yes. "When we say Congress gave every administration the authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda, we didn't exempt the homeland, did we?" Graham asked.

"No I don't think we did," Holder said. "In the letter that I sent to Sen. Paul, that's one of the reasons I mentioned September the 11th," Holder said, referring to an order given by then-Vice President Dick Cheney to shoot down passenger planes that were reportedly headed for the Capitol. The order was never carried out because it was received too late. 

"What I worry about are the people who say America is a battlefield," Paul said during his filibuster. "They're saying they want the laws of war to apply here." 

More Cocaine Could Soon Be on Our Streets, Thanks to the Sequester

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 4:48 PM EST

Add this to the list of potential consequences of sequestration, the across-the-board spending cuts totaling $85 billion this year that went into effect on Friday: more cocaine on our streets.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, the Navy is pulling back from an operation that kept 160 tons of cocaine and 25,000 pounds of marijuana out of the United States last year. The program, called "Operation Martillo," was a joint effort between the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency, and governmental agencies in Europe and Latin America. But now, due to sequestration, the Navy will not deploy two of its ships slated to replace two homebound Navy vessels that were participating in the program. Here's more from the Virginian-Pilot:

Officials acknowledge that, without the frigates, fighting drug trafficking in the Caribbean just got tougher.

"We are always looking for creative ways to address this problem," said Lt. Cmdr. Ron Flanders, spokesman for the Southern Command, which is responsible for the task force that works with partner countries to run Operation Martillo.

"Certainly with less gray hulls it will be more challenging," he said, referring to Navy ships.

Last year, Operation Martillo ("martillo" means hammer in Spanish) intercepted and captured $4 billion worth of cocaine, valued at $12 billion in street resale value; 25,000 pounds of marijuana, worth more than $10 million on the streets; and $3.5 million in cash, according to U.S. Southern Command.

The across-the-board budget slashes took effect Friday, coming down hard on defense and forcing the services to cut operations not considered essential. With the Afghanistan war effort still a priority and the Navy's pivot to the Pacific region, commanders have warned that police and goodwill operations in South and Central America would be on the sequestration chopping block.

Operation Martillo is not the only naval operation in the Caribbean hit by sequestration.

The hospital ship Comfort was supposed to leave its new base in Norfolk early next month for a four-month humanitarian mission to eight South and Central American nations. That, too, was cut.

For more on how the sequestration is shaking things up, see MoJo's previous coverage: Kevin Drum explains what sequestration is and how it works, Erika Eichelberger outlines 12 ways it could hurt low-income Americans, and Zaineb Muhammad highlights six ways it could harm the environment.