Mojo - March 2013

The Government Still Doesn't Want You to Know What Caused the Financial Crisis

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 12:19 PM EST

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, the US government launched a vast investigation, but it still doesn't want you to know the details of what it found.

In January 2011, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) created by Congress put out its final report. But it only released a portion of all the source documents it scoured, so last year the government accountability group Cause of Action filed a lawsuit seeking the release of those documents, including emails, memoranda, and draft reports. Last week, the DC district court announced it was dismissing the case. But it's not over yet: COA vowed on Tuesday that it will appeal the decision. In a statement, the group said the judge's ruling that the documents were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act was "a misapplication of the law," and said that "COA will continue to fight to shed light on the workings of our government."

The FCIC was created in 2009 and given an $8 million budget and a lot of power to subpoena witnesses and documents, and give whistleblower protections to those who would come forward with information. The commission was also plagued by partisan division. Its final report in 2011 faulted failures in financial regulation, excessive borrowing, a lack of transparency, and risky investments, among other causes—but Republicans on the committee put out their own conflicting report. Meanwhile, the commission said it could not release all related documents but vowed that they "will eventually be made public through the National Archives and Records Administration." (Which has yet to happen.)

As Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, told my colleague Nick Baumann at the time:

The [final] report, as I understand it, says [the financial crisis] was a preventable thing and preventable by lots of different measures. The Republican dissent is that this was caused by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That's one of those disputes where it's not just two interpretations of common facts diverging from one another. Those are two different narratives coming out of the same commission, which lead in two different policy directions and really tell two different stories.

There are powerful incentives in certain institutions to just leave it at that. The most obvious one is the "he said/she said" journalism, where you say, "This is what the commission Republicans said, this is what the Democrats said, and really—who can tell." The release of documents provides a way for people to provide a check on that tendency.

As Baumann reported, FCIC chairman Phil Angelides worried at the time that "there's going to be a very conscious, deliberate effort to rewrite [the] history [of the crisis], to wave this away like it was a bump in the road." Keeping the primary source documents hidden from the public makes that easier, of course.

COA suggested that another financial meltdown could loom if the public can't hold the government accountable for exactly what happened in the lead up to the 2008 crisis. "The President has signed into law regulations, like [the] Dodd-Frank [financial reform bill], without the American people fully understanding what caused our economic meltdown or what went into the creation of the FCIC's report," the group said, adding that it's not even clear if the taxpayer-funded FCIC conducted a full investigation.

As Michael Perino, a law professor at St. John's University in New York who has written about the investigation of the causes of the Great Depression, told Baumann in 2011: "Opening up all those materials would allow independent investigators to pore through them and reach their own conclusions."

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 6, 2013

Wed Mar. 6, 2013 9:27 AM EST

U.S. Army Sgt. Curtis Smith, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, provides security during an Afghan Border Patrol outpost assessment in Afghanistan on Feb. 10. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ryan Hallgarth.

 

Personhood Advocates Pledge to Try Again in Mississippi

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 6:00 AM EST

Advocates of "personhood" for zygotes have decided that if at first you don't succeed in banning all abortions, try again. And again, and again.

The anti-abortion group Personhood USA tried to pass a ballot measure granting fertilized eggs the same rights as adult humans in Colorado in 2008, and it failed. They tried again in Colorado in 2010, and it failed again, this time by a 3-to-1 margin. So then they tried in Mississippi in November 2011, where it lost yet again, with 58 percent of the voters even in this conservative state rejecting it.

So, the only logical next step for them, it appears, is to try again in Mississippi. On Tuesday, the group's Mississippi chapter announced that it is working to get personhood back on the ballot. The Associated Press reports that the group filed paperwork with the secretary of state's office on Tuesday in hopes of getting it on the 2015 ballot:

After a ballot title and summary are prepared by the attorney general's office, the initiative's sponsors would have one year to gather at least 107,216 signatures to get the measure on the ballot. That means the earliest likely date for a vote would be in November 2015, coinciding with the next governor's election.

Mississippi only has one abortion clinic—which we reported on in a story and photo essay recently—that could be shut down in the next few weeks due to a new state law requiring the doctors there to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. So even without a "personhood" amendment making all abortion illegal, the state could be on its way to making abortion totally inaccessible for women living there anyway. 

Reproductive rights groups reacted immediately to the news that the "personhood" folks were back at it. "Mississippi voters have already spoken: Health care decisions should be left to a woman, her family, her doctor, and her faith—not politicians," said Felicia Brown-Williams, director of public policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast in a statement. "Mississippians expect real solutions to the real crises facing our state–not government intrusion into private medical decisions."

Corn on MSNBC: Jeb Bush's Flip-Flop-Flip on Immigration

Tue Mar. 5, 2013 9:29 PM EST

The Republican party needs the Latino vote, so Jeb Bush, a contender for 2016, might want to support the bipartisan push for immigration reform. But his flip-flopping has won him few friends on either side of the aisle. His new book, Immigrant Wars, comes out against any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which reverses his previous support. Then, however, he told NBC's Chuck Todd he would support a path to citizenship "under the right circumstances." Watch DC bureau chief David Corn discuss Jeb Bush with MSNBC's Martin Bashir.

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

Hugo Chávez Dead at 58

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 5:57 PM EST

Chávez, pictured here in August 2011, had his first cancer treatment in June of that year.

Hugo Chávez, the firebrand president of Venezuela who has battled cancer since 2011, died Tuesday in Caracas. He was 58 years old.

Vice President Nicolás Maduro announced Chávez's passing in a radio and television address, saying that the 14-year president died at 4:25 p.m. local time. Just hours earlier, Maduro had told the media that the socialist president was entering "his most difficult hours" due to a new, severe respiratory infection.

Chávez was last seen in public on December 10, when he traveled to Cuba two months after his latest reelection for his fourth cancer surgery in 18 months. Rumors about his health—indeed, whether he was still alive—persisted. His Twitter account, @chavezcandanga, sent a trio of tweets on February 18, after several months of silence. His last tweet read:

(Loosely translated: "I'm still holding on to Christ and trust in my doctors and nurses. Until victory forever!! We will live and we will triumph!!!")

A former paratrooper who spent two years in prison after a failed coup in 1992, Chávez took office in 1999, fought off a coup attempt in 2002 and a recall referendum in 2004, and was reelected three times, including in October, when he claimed himself healthy enough for another term. He gained fame for using Venezuela's vast oil revenues to fund his anti-poverty social programs—and for his fiery, anti-imperial rhetoric. He also rubbed plenty of people the wrong way—on both ends of the political spectrum—with his strongman tendencies, his rewriting of the country's constitution, and his alliances with the likes of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Maduro will take power until an election takes place within 30 days. He is likely to face Henrique Capriles Radomski, the Miranda state governor whom Chávez beat just months ago.

UPDATE, March 5, 3:33 PT: The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson, who first profiled Chávez in 2001 and long had great access to him, just posted an obituary. Read it.

This story has been updated.

Obama Administration Says President Can Use Lethal Force Against Americans on US Soil

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 3:55 PM EST

UPDATE March 7 4:12 PM EST: Attorney General Eric Holder sent a second letter to Senator Rand Paul on Thursday clarifying the administration's views on the use of military force inside the United States.

Yes, the president does have the authority to use military force against American citizens on US soil—but only in "an extraordinary circumstance," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a letter to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Tuesday. 

"The US Attorney General's refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes on American citizens and on American soil is more than frightening," Paul said Tuesday. "It is an affront the constitutional due process rights of all Americans."

Last month, Paul threatened to filibuster the nomination of John Brennan, Obama's pick to head the CIA, "until he answers the question of whether or not the president can kill American citizens through the drone strike program on US soil." Tuesday, Brennan told Paul that "the agency I have been nominated to lead does not conduct lethal operations inside the United States—nor does it have any authority to do so." Brennan said that the Justice Department would answer Paul's question about whether Americans could be targeted for lethal strikes on US soil.

Holder's answer was more detailed, however, stating that under certain circumstances, the president would have the authority to order lethal attacks on American citizens. The two possible examples of such "extraordinary" circumstances were the attack on Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. An American president ordering the use of lethal military force inside the United States is "entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront," Holder wrote. Here's the bulk of the letter:

As members of this administration have previously indicated, the US government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so. As a policy matter moreover, we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat. We have a long history of using the criminal justice system to incapacitate individuals located in our country who pose a threat to the United States and its interests abroad. Hundreds of individuals have been arrested and convicted of terrorism-related offenses in our federal courts.

The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001.

The letter concludes, "were such an emergency to arise, I would examine the particular facts and circumstances before advising the president of the scope of his authority."

In a Google+ Hangout last month, President Obama refused to say directly if he had the authority to use lethal force against US citizens. As Mother Jones reported at the time, the reason the president was being so coy is that the answer was likely yes. Now we know that's exactly what was happening. "Any use of drone strikes or other premeditated lethal force inside the United States would raise grave legal and ethical concerns," says Raha Wala, an attorney with Human Rights First. "There should be equal concern about using force overseas."

This post has been edited to include Paul's statement and the final line of Holder's letter.

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Number of Anti-Government Groups Hits Record High

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 3:05 PM EST

The number of conspiracy-peddling anti-government groups hit a record high last year, according to a report put out Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which also found that hate groups in general remain at near-record levels.

Between 2000 and 2012, the number of hate groups, defined the by SPLC as those that verbally attack minority groups, rose from 602 to more than 1,000. The number declined slightly last year—from 1,018 to 1,007—but the number of so-called "patriot groups," groups that generally believe the government is conspiring to take Americans' guns and freedoms and impose one-world rule, hit a record high of 1,360 in 2012, up from 149 in 2008.

"We are seeing the fourth straight year of really explosive growth on the part of anti-government patriot groups and militias," Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC said on a conference call Tuesday. "That's 913 percent in growth. We've never seen that kind of growth in any kind of group we cover."

Why so much hate and paranoia? The culprits are pretty predictable: a liberal black president, the wider shift in demographics in the country, and the mainstreaming of formerly marginal conspiracies like Agenda 21, says Potok.

Although these groups aren't necessarily involved in violence or criminality, their rise still has advocates worried. "Only a small percentage acts violently, but they should raise red flags and cause concern," Daryl Johnson, former senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, said during the conference call. And Potok says that immigration reform, gun control legislation, and the increasing social acceptance of LGBT rights have the potential to further fuel growth of these groups.

On Tuesday, the SPLC sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security urging it to amp up its non-Islamic domestic terrorism monitoring. The agency has done a lot less monitoring on non-Islamic terror since 2009, when a leaked DHS report revealing a resurgence of the radical right caused an uproar amongst GOP lawmakers and right-wing talk show hosts. The controversy spurred Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano to withdraw the report and dismantle the domestic non-Islamic terrorism unit that had written it.

Johnson, whose team at DHS wrote the report, says that since then, "nothing at the Department of Homeland Security regarding this issue has changed. DHS has one or two analysts looking at right-wing extremism. Meanwhile it has dozens of analysts and resources looking at home-grown Islamic extremists."

"We need to stand up a domestic terrorism unit and start analyzing this threat," he says.

Senators Will Get to Know When Obama Can Kill Americans—But You Won't

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 2:50 PM EST

Fake drone.

The White House has agreed to more widely share secret Justice Department memos justifying the targeted killing of American citizens suspected of terrorism, Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced Tuesday.

The documents had become an issue in the Obama administration's push to have counterterrorism official John Brennan confirmed as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. "I am pleased the administration has made this information available," Feinstein said in a statement sent to reporters. "It is important for the committee to do its work and will pave the way for the confirmation of John Brennan to be CIA director." The committee is expected to vote on Brennan's confirmation Tuesday afternoon.

Until last month, the legislators charged with overseeing United States intelligence operations had not been allowed to read the memos. But then, on the eve of John Brennan's confirmation hearing, senators were allowed to see some of the documents—but were not allowed to share them with their staff. 

According to a Senate aide, committee staff (one aide per member) will now also be able to view the memos. That step is welcomed by Raha Wala, an attorney with Human Rights First. "Many congressional staff—including some that are lawyers—have the necessary expertise to evaluate the legal and policy claims being advanced in these memos," he says. "Oversight without their participation would be oversight in name only." Wala also says other committees, such as the Senate and House judiciary committees, should also be allowed access to the memos.

Following Feinstein's announcement, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) released a joint statement saying they would now support Brennan's confirmation: "We are pleased that we now have the access that we have long sought and need to conduct the vigilant oversight with which the committee has been charged." Wyden had told the Daily Beast last week that he felt "very strongly that the intelligence committee has to have any and all legal opinions related to targeted killings before there is a committee vote." 

The three senators asked the Obama administration to be even more open: "The appropriate next step should be to bring the American people into this debate." Their statement also praised Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for insisting that the Obama administration answer questions related to its claimed authority to use lethal force within the United States, and suggested that some answers would soon be made available. "We are particularly pleased that the administration will provide public, unclassified answers to questions about whether these lethal authorities can be used within the United States," the senators said. Paul's office told Mother Jones that they had received a written answer to one of his questions, but did not state whether he would withdraw his threat to filibuster Brennan's nomination.

Human rights advocates expressed satisfaction that the Obama administration has decided to be more forthcoming with its legal authorities regarding targeted killing, but pointed out that the issue the Senate was focused on—terror suspects who are American citizens—was a narrow one.

"As far as we know, these memos likely cover only one targeting decision—the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki—in the hundreds that have occurred during the Bush and Obama administrations," Wala said. "This is an important step forward, but it's woefully inadequate to guarantee robust oversight of the targeted killing program."

Study: Trolls on Twitter Do Not Necessarily Represent America, Are Partisan Cynics

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 12:34 PM EST

A team at the Pew Research Center spent a whole year monitoring Twitter discourse on major American political events, and instead of falling into a deep depression they wrote a study about it.

The findings, published Monday under the title, "Twitter Reaction to Events Often at Odds with Overall Public Opinion," confirm—with lucid data—things you already know about Twitter if you have ever come into contact with Twitter: The popular micro-blogging site represents only a shred of American opinion, and trolls on Twitter tend to be vicious and unhappy.

Boy Scouts Have No One Famous to Play at Their Jamboree Because They Kick Out Gay Kids

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 12:25 PM EST

The only musicians headlining the Boy Scouts' annual Jamboree, "proof that rock music is dead" band Train and "Call Me Maybe" singer Carly Rae Jepsen, announced this week that they refuse to play the event, which is expected to have up to 40,000 attendees, as long as the organization continues to discriminate against gay Scouts and scoutmasters. Train wrote on Friday that it will not perform unless the Boy Scouts "make the right decision" and overturn the ban before the Jamboree. Jepsen appears to have dropped out entirely today, according to her Twitter account. The announcements come after a Change.org petition asking the artists to step down garnered 62,000 signatures in four days

So who is going to serenade the Scouts while they partake in community service, Buckskin games, pioneering, technology quests, 3-D archery, and shotgun shooting?

"I was trying to think of artists that are anti-gay that the Boy Scouts could get, and I couldn't think of any," Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) tells Mother Jones. "Perhaps they can ask Chuck Norris or Victoria Jackson." Ferraro adds that this is the first year he's aware of that the Boy Scouts have been without any entertainment because of the ban. Deron Smith, director of public relations for the Boy Scouts of America, told Mother Jones that the group remains "focused on delivering a great Jamboree program for our Scouts," but did not comment on who would be replacing Train and Jepsen.

The Boy Scouts announced in January that they would consider overturning its decades-old anti-gay policy, but they are putting off any decision until May (even if the Scouts do overturn the policy, however, troops on the local level will still be allowed to discriminate). Pressure to overturn the ban has been intensifying over the last few months, with funders dropping out, Scouts renouncing their membership, and even President Obama denouncing the policy.

"No fair-minded media outlet, corporation or celebrity will want to partner with the BSA as long as the organization puts discrimination and anti-gay bias before the needs of young people," GLAAD said in a statement. BSA's Smith says the Scouts "appreciate everyone's right to express an opinion" and "don't have anything to add at this time."

Image Source: GLAAD