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President Obama is expected to nominate Tom Wheeler, a venture capitalist and longtime Obama supporter, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday.

The next chairman will help steer the FCC on key issues ranging from broadband access, to net neutrality, to whether the FCC should auction off unused network airwaves to raise revenue—an idea Wheeler has previously said he supports

Wheeler's critics say he is too much of an industry advocate, especially given the 12 years he spent heading up the CTIA, a telecommunications trade group whose membership includes nearly every major industry player. Mother Jones' David Corn reported on this when Wheeler's name was first circulated back in March:

[Wheeler] is no consumer advocate, but he has this advantage: He has raised a lot of money as a campaign bundler for Obama. Wheeler is also a member in good standing with the Washington establishment; he sits on the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and is a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center. During 2009, he led the Obama-Biden transition's working group overseeing science, technology, space, and arts agencies.

"He's beloved in the telecom industry," a former Obama administration official says of Wheeler. An industry newsletter notes, "having spent his entire career representing businesses, running businesses and investing in businesses, Wheeler undoubtedly will have a light regulatory touch in all matters. And that's not something you can say about most Democrats."

But Wheeler may well avoid backlash. Earlier this month, a group of former administration officials from the tech and telecom world sent Obama a letter of support praising Wheeler as someone who has "applied his expertise to the challenges of a civil society." And in Time, two industry analysts said Wheeler has picked up "helpful endorsements to cover his left flank."

The nomination also dashes hopes that Obama would pick the first woman to serve as FCC chair; former Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ambassador Jessica Rosenworcel and Obama aide Karen Kornbluh were thought to be potential nominees. 

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

Congressman Ed Markey is one step closer to replacing Secretary of State John Kerry in the US Senate. On Tuesday, he cruised past Stephen Lynch, a fellow Democratic congressman, in the special Democratic primary in Massachusetts to fill Kerry's vacated seat. With nearly all precincts reporting, Markey held a commanding lead of 57 percent to 43 percent over Lynch.

Markey will face ex-Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez in a special general election to be held in late June. Gomez is a political newcomer. His only prior run for office was a bid to win a seat on the board of selectmen in tiny Cohasset, Mass. (He lost.) That didn't stop Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super-PAC, from describing Gomez as "Mitt Romney Jr.," a businessman-turned-politician who wants to cut benefits for senior citizens and lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Gomez, for his part, has pledged to "reboot" Congress by instituting, among other changes, term limits for politicians and a lifetime ban on lobbying.

Markey has carved out a liberal record during his 20 terms in the House—a long political career that his opponents will no doubt use against him. Over those years, he has established a reputation as one of Congress' leading advocates for protecting the environment and fighting climate change. He co-authored one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation to address climate change, the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2009, which failed to make it through Congress.

Markey's strong environmental record helps explain why he got an assist in his win over Lynch from the San Francisco hedge fund investor and environmentalist Tom Steyer. Despite Markey and Lynch agreeing to a "People's Pledge" to keep outside money out of their race, Steyer's NextGen super-PAC spent more than $400,000 on online ads and microtargeting, often hammering Lynch over his support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Steyer's involvement added some drama to a off-year primary with a lackluster turnout.

Steyer says he will use his fortune, estimated at $1.4 billion, to drag the issue of climate change into the spotlight in American politics and to combat the influence of climate change deniers and the oil lobby. He's taking a similar approach to the climate issue that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg takes on gun control: supporting candidates who see things his way and attacking those who do not. "Really, what we're trying to do is to make a point that people who make good decisions on this should be rewarded, and people should be aware that if they do the wrong thing, the American voters are watching and they will be punished," Steyer told the Hill.

Long active in California politics, the Markey-Lynch race was Steyer's first big foray as an outside spender into a marquee Congressional race. He drew howls with an open letter giving Lynch a deadline of "high noon" to flip his position on the Keystone pipeline. But by the end of the campaign, Steyer's spending appeared to have boosted Markey (even if the veteran congressman didn't really need the help to win Tuesday's primary). And a dedicated environmentalist is now on the cusp of filling John Kerry's old seat—exactly what Steyer wants.

Steyer has yet to say if he'll go after Gabriel Gomez in the general election. But he's one for one so far, and given every indication he plans to spend a lot more money in the months and years ahead.

Update, (05/01/2013, 5:30 p.m. PDT): Late Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced that it will in fact appeal Federal District Court Judge Edward R. Korman's April 5 order to make Plan B One-Step available to all women of reproductive age without a prescription. The DOJ has also asked Judge Korman to stay his order, pending the results of their appeal.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the emergency contraception drug Plan B One-Step must be made available over the counter to everyone, after the Department of Health and Human Services had decided to make it only available to women older than 16. But a decision that the Food and Drug Administration issued Tuesday afternoon has left some wondering if the Obama administration plans to challenge Federal District Court Judge Edward R. Korman's April 5 decision.

Teva Women's Health Inc., which makes the drug, had initially applied to make Plan B One-Step available over the counter for all females of reproductive age, but the FDA denied that request back in December 2011. The company then submitted an amended application asking the FDA to approve Plan B One-Step for sale without a prescription for women 15 years of age and older, which is what today's decision approved.

From the FDA's release (emphasis theirs):

The product will now be labeled "not for sale to those under 15 years of age *proof of age required* not for sale where age cannot be verified." Plan B One-Step will be packaged with a product code prompting a cashier to request and verify the customer’s age. A customer who cannot provide age verification will not be able to purchase the product. In addition, Teva has arranged to have a security tag placed on all product cartons to prevent theft.
"These are daunting and sometimes insurmountable hoops women are forced to jump through in time-sensitive circumstances."

While Tuesday's decision only applies to one brand of emergency contraception and does lower the age barrier for that brand, it does not remove the age requirement entirely. It also maintains an ID requirement to purchase the product. These restrictions, reproductive rights groups have argued, create a barrier to all women who want to buy the drug, not just women under 15, since it means that in practice the drug is only available to those with a government-issued ID. The FDA stipulated in the release that this decision is "is independent of" the lawsuit, that Teva had submitted the application before the judge's decision, and the announcement "is not intended to address the judge's ruling."

But its release has reproductive rights advocates wondering if this is a precedent for how the Obama administration intends deal with emergency contraception. The judge's decision required the FDA to make emergency contraception available over-the-counter for everyone by May 6. If the Obama administration plans to abide by the court's ruling, some advocates wondered, why make this announcement at all?

"The FDA is under a federal court order that makes it crystal clear that emergency contraception must be made available over the counter, without restriction to women of all ages by next Monday," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit prompting the judge's decision. "These are daunting and sometimes insurmountable hoops women are forced to jump through in time-sensitive circumstances, and we will continue our battle in court to remove these arbitrary restrictions on emergency contraception for all women."

A spokesman at the FDA referred Mother Jones to the Department of Justice, which is handling the lawsuit, for comment on the administration's plans on the court decision. "The Department of Justice is considering next steps in the litigation," said the FDA's in its release. "In the meantime, the FDA took independent action to approve the pending application on Plan B One-Step for use without a prescription by women 15 years of age or older."

New York City has become the nation's leader in stop-and-frisk, the growing practice of stopping mostly young, mostly minority Americans on the street and searching them without a warrant or probable cause. The city is currently attempting to defend the controversial policy against a lawsuit that alleges that the New York Police Department is violating New Yorkers' constitutional rights by stopping and searching people without adequate justification. At a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a new tack in defending stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately affects people of color: He implied critics of the policy are racist.

As New York's Dan Amira writes, Bloomberg's comments echoed rapper Kanye West's claim, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that George W. Bush didn't care about black people. That was a black person accusing a white president of not caring about black people. This is a white mayor telling black people they don't care about black people. (Call it a double-reverse Kanye).

Here's the relevant excerpt, flagged by Amira, in which Bloomberg not only attacks the New York Times but also the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is litigating the stop and frisk case:

Last week Bronx resident Alphonza Bryant was shot and killed while standing with friends near his home. He was 17. Like most murder victims in our city, he was a minority…Alphonza was a person—he had a loving mother, family, friends. It does not appear that he was even the intended target of the shooters. He was just a victim of too many guns on our streets. But after his murder there was no outrage from the Center for Constitutional Rights or the NYCLU. There was not even a mention of his murder in our paper of record, the New York Times. "All the news that's fit to print" did not include the murder of 17-year-old Alphonza Bryant. Do you think that if a white, 17-year-old prep student from Manhattan had been murdered, the Times would have ignored it? Me neither. I believe that the life of every 17-year-old and every child and every adult is precious.

There are 11 plaintiffs in the stop-and-frisk case currently on trial in federal district court, none of whom is white. According to Bloomberg, if minorities don't want to their freedom of movement restricted because of their skin color, it's just because they're racist…against themselves. A New York Times spokeswoman told Politico that Bloomberg's criticism of the paper was "absurd."

Here's who is actually affected by stop and frisk:

And here's how many weapons the practice takes off the streets compared to the number of people who are stopped:

As the judge presiding over the stop-and-frisk case, Shira Scheindlin, has said, the case is not about whether or not stop-and-frisk is effective. It's about whether the policy violates New Yorkers' constitutional rights. A policy can be "effective" and still be illegal because it doesn't recognize those rights. Surely Bloomberg can understand that.

Check out the rest of our stop-and-frisk charts here.

A Free Syrian Army rebel holds his position during fighting in the strategic village of Aldoreneh, Syria, in December 2012.

What do the most hawkish neocons desire in Syria? A full US military presence in the air and on the ground.

In recent days, hawks on the right (and the left) have pumped up the volume in calling for US military action in Syria. Last week, President Barack Obama sent a letter to key members of Congress saying that US intelligence has obtained evidence of "small-scale" use of chemical weapons, presumably by forces associated with the Syrian government. But the White House has noted that the "chain of custody" for these weapons hadn't been confirmed and that further corroboration was needed. The use of any chemical weapons in Syria by government forces would violate the "red line" Obama declared last year.

But the president in the past few days, most notably at his press conference on Tuesday, has stated that he intends to proceed deliberatively and that more information is necessary before reaching a firm conclusion about the use of chemical weapons. He also said at the press conference that if confirmation is obtained, it would be a "game changer" for the "international community"—that is, not a cause for immediate unilateral US military action—and that it would cause him to "rethink the range of options." In recent days, White House aides have told me that possible responses (for which Obama would seek support at the United Nations and the Arab League) could include boosting or changing the nature of the now-nonlethal aid being provided to anti-government rebels or a "limited" military strike on a target related to chemical weapons or of symbolic or strategic importance to Damascus. "There are no easy answers," more than one White House aide has said with a sigh, noting that many rebels are now tied to Al Qaeda or other extremists and the Syrian government maintains a state-of-the-art air defense system.

The usual hawks, though, are pushing for immediate and elaborate military intervention—without always being specific. On ABC's This Week, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chair of the House intelligence committee, said the red line "cannot be a dotted line" and "some action needs to be taken." On CBS's Face the Nation, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) maintained "there's a growing consensus in the US Senate that the United States should get involved." And several Democrats have echoed the call for doing something in response to the latest reports on chemical weapons. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said "action must be taken." House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, "I myself think that we have tolerated for too long all of the assaults on the Syrian people made by its own government. I think we have to take it to the next step." But, she added, "That does not mean troops on the ground."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), while fervently urging military intervention, agreed no US troops should intrude upon Syrian territory. He called for an international force that would locate and secure chemical weapons in Syria. "There are a number of caches of these chemical weapons," he said. "They cannot fail into the hands of the jihadists." He repeated his proposal for establishing a no-fly zone and providing arms to the rebels, who already have been receiving weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are each eager to back the Sunni opposition fighting the Alawites of Bashar al-Assad's regime. McCain, though, did caution against placing US "boots on the ground in Syria," contending "that would turn the people against us." Even neocon favorite John Bolton, in a Wall Street Journal article slamming Obama for, yes, foreign policy fecklessness, pointed out that military action aimed at Syrian chemical weapons is an iffy propsect: "[T]he humanitarian costs of chemical-weapons use inside Syria are potentially high, but so are the risks to American and allied forces trying to destroy or seize chemical weapons, given the dangers and complexities involved." (He also noted "the unpleasant fact that the opposition is thick with terrorists—including al Qaeda—and radical Islamicists.")

But real neocons, it seems, do not get squishy when the question is US troops on Syrian soil. After Obama's press conference, a publicist for the American Center for Democracy shot out a press release touting the group's director, Rachel Ehrenfeld, and her proposals for action in Syria. She has three simple steps for the United States: bypass the United Nations and impose a no-fly zone in Syria; stop giving arms to rebels associated with Al Qaeda; and deploy US troops within Syria to secure chemical-weapons facilities. Given that Syria probably has scores, if not hundreds, of chemical-weapons sites, such a force would entail tens of thousands of US troops, perhaps hundreds of thousands. And these soldiers would likely have to fight their way to these sites. (No cake-walking here.)

Her proposal would entail invading Syria with a massive force of US troops. But Ehrenfeld's position is not that surprising, considering the board members and advisers for her American Center for Democracy. They include Richard Perle, one of the most hawkish neocons, who led the cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq, and former CIA chief R. James Woolsey, who after 9/11 promoted the neoconnish conspiracy theory that Saddam Hussein was the secret puppet master controlling Al Qaeda. On the ACD's list of advisers are retired Lt. General Thomas McInerney and retired Maj. General Paul Vallely, who were each over-the-top supporters of the Iraq War on Fox News.

One sign that Syria is indeed a hard case is that the neocons and the usual hawks are not entirely united. They are torn over whether to arm the anti-Assad forces, substantial portions of which are aligned with jihadists and extremists hostile to the United States, Israel, and the West. Some are squeamish about sending in US troops. Yet Bill Kristol, the son-of-the-godfather of the neocons, a few days ago denounced Obama's reluctance to take military action in Syria and proclaimed, "No one wants to start wars, but you've got to do what you've got to do." Ehrenfeld and the American Center for Democracy are demonstrating that the most hawkish neocons are ready to heed Kristol and go all-out in Syria. They want American boots on the ground, and they're not likely to stop squawking until there is an invasion.

"It's not a surprise to me that we are having problems at Guantanamo," President Obama said on Tuesday, reiterating that the prison needs to be closed. It makes cooperation with allies more difficult, he said, also noting that Guantanamo is unsafe and too expensive. "I am going to go back at this," he said, "I am going to reengage with Congress that this is not in the best interest of the American people."

America's so-called war on terror has always been fundamentally flawed. Even the invasion of Afghanistan, which struck many as a sensible response to 9/11, felt like the beginning of something terrible: a war against an idea, rather than a global crime-fighting effort against a particularly ruthless organized crime organization. The notion that waging a war could put an end to the phenomenon of terrorism has always been naive, and it's left many innocents dead in its wake.

Two months ago, $85 billion in automatic slash-and-burn spending cuts to federal and state programs kicked in because Congress couldn't come up with a better way to deal with the deficit. Today, my colleague Tim Murphy reports on the ways those cuts are playing out across all 50 states, from shuttered Head Start programs to massive layoffs. If that weren't bad enough, a pair of prominent researchers said Monday that austerity policies are making people sick.

Oxford University political economist David Stuckler and Stanford University epidemiologist Sanjay Basu are publishing a new book this week detailing how austerity cuts are causing ill health across Europe and North America by driving up depression, suicide, and infectious diseases, and limiting access to medicines and healthcare. Reuters reports:

[T]he researchers say more than 10,000 suicides and up to a million cases of depression have been diagnosed during what they call the "Great Recession" and its accompanying austerity across Europe and North America.

In Greece, moves like cutting HIV prevention budgets have coincided with rates of the AIDS-causing virus rising by more than 200 percent since 2011—driven in part by increasing drug abuse in the context of a 50 percent youth unemployment rate.

Greece also experienced its first malaria outbreak in decades following budget cuts to mosquito-spraying programs.

And more than five million Americans have lost access to healthcare during the latest recession, they argue, while in Britain, some 10,000 families have been pushed into homelessness by the government's austerity budget.

Previous work by the same researchers has also linked rising suicide rates to austerity measures. But they maintain that the bad health effects are not inevitable, even in the worst crises, and point to the Great Depression as an example. "During the 1930s depression in the United States, each extra $100 of relief spending from the American New Deal led to about 20 fewer deaths per 1,000 births, four fewer suicides per 100,000 people and 18 fewer pneumonia deaths per 100,000 people," Kate Kelland writes at Reuters.

The austerity mentality may be on the decline. New numbers show that the US national debt is falling for the first time in six years; an influential study linking high levels of national debt to slower growth has been debunked; some are saying the era of austerity is over. Still, in a press conference Tuesday, Obama reiterated the importance of deficit reduction, so we're not out of the sick room yet.

As Basu told Reuters, "Ultimately... worsening health is not an inevitable consequence of economic recessions. It's a political choice."

States across the country have spent the last few years reconsidering the wisdom of capital punishment. Over the past six years, five states have abolished the death penalty entirely, including Maryland just last month. But Florida, where the execution rate is second only to Texas, isn't having that conversation. Instead, Gov. Rick Scott (R) is currently considering a bill passed by the legislature this week that would speed up executions in the state by limiting "frivolous" appeals by inmates and shortening the time they spend on Death Row. (Florida has about 400 people on Death Row, 10 of whom have been there more than 35 years.)

Called the "Timely Justice Act," the bill would create new deadlines for certain filings and force the state to move faster towards an execution after a ruling by the state supreme court. Florida legislators behind the bill believe it will save money (executions currently cost state taxpayers about $24 million each) and bring closure to victims, but legal advocates say that it's likely to do nothing but raise the possibility that Florida will execute an innocent person. They're on pretty solid ground with that argument, given that 24 people on Florida's Death Row have been exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.

It's not very hard to convict someone of a capital crime in Florida, which is the only state in the country that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence with only a simple majority vote of 7 to 5. Also, the state has one of the nation's worst indigent defense systems, ensuring that anyone facing a capital charge is likely to get a bad lawyer in the deal. Because of other state budget crises, Florida has slashed the money available for indigent defense, and it caps the fees in a capital case at $15,000, an amount that barely covers a lawyer's time in court through the trial. The fees are so bad that few lawyers will take capital cases. (Florida's indigent defense system is generally a mess. After the state legislature in 2009 set very low flat fees for private lawyers who are appointed to handle criminal defense cases, lawyers fled the system in droves. Things got so dire that at one point judges attempted to force lawyers to take the cases through "involuntary" appointments.)

The lawyers who do take the capital cases are often largely incompetent. Florida made the news a few years ago after one of its mentally ill death row inmates, Albert Holland Jr., won a US Supreme Court case in which Justice Stephen Breyer found that Holland did a better job of representing himself than his court-appointed lawyers did. The New York Times explains what sorts of representation Holland had gotten in Florida:

Consider Kenneth Delegal, who was assigned to defend Mr. Holland at a 1996 retrial on charges that he killed a Pompano Beach police officer in 1990. Mr. Delegal was removed from the case after being sent to a mental health facility. Later, the two men would see each other at the Broward County jail, where Mr. Delegal was held on drug and domestic violence charges.

The next lawyer, James Lewis, was a friend of Mr. Delegal’s and had shared office space with him. When Mr. Delegal went to court after his removal from Mr. Holland’s case, seeking to be paid about $40,000 for his work on it, the new lawyer testified on behalf of the old one, saying the fees had been “reasonable and necessary.”

Mr. Delegal died of a drug overdose about a month after the fee hearing, and a local paper asked his former colleague Mr. Lewis about his troubles. “I heard some rumors,” Mr. Lewis said, “but I chose not to know.”

The new Florida bill attempts to address the issue of terrible lawyers and the appeals they generate by setting competence standards for lawyers taking capital cases, and it would bar anyone found guilty twice of giving "constitutionally deficient representation" from handling another capital case for five years. But the bill doesn't provide any more money to pay for more competent counsel.

The bill's opponents haven't convinced Florida lawmakers of any of this. During a legislative debate last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) said, "Only God can judge. But we sure can set up the meeting." The bill awaits Scott's signature.

Capt. Paul Gates, commanding officer of Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, pauses during a dismounted patrol with Afghan National Civil Order Policemen (ANCOP) during Operation California in Kajaki district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 28, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Trent A. Randolph/Released.

(Foreign-policy metaphors...)

On Monday morning, the New York Times ran a story reporting that for the past decade the CIA has been funneling tens of millions of dollars, off-the-books, directly to the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The payments, occasionally dropped off in plastic bags, were part of the intelligence agency's attempts to buy access in Karzai's government and encourage support for the war against Al Qaeda and extremist elements. The CIA continued to transfer hundreds of thousands in cash, even as it became increasingly clear that the cash wasn't doing much to curb Karzai's tendency to defy and frustrate the United States government. Afghan officials have used the payments for an assortment of expenses, including underwriting "informal negotiations" and buying off warlords, some of whom are connected to the Taliban.

"We called it 'ghost money,'" Khalil Roman, Karzai's former deputy chief of staff, told the Times. "It came in secret, and it left in secret."

Since the news broke, Karzai released a statement admitting his office accepted the funds, but claiming that the small fortune was used only for legitimate and noble purposes, such as rental costs and helping "injured people." (Years ago, it was reported that Karzai's now deceased half-brother was a paid CIA asset.)

The Times report notes that though intelligence agencies will often pay foreign officials for information or influence, pouring satchels of "ghost money" directly into a foreign leader's office is a less common practice. However sketchy this sounds (and however corruption-infected the Karzai government may be), such transfers do not violate American law. "Under US law, there are statues that prohibit the payment of bribes in securing contracts, if you're [a part of] a corporation; but such laws don't necessarily apply to the US government itself," John Prados, a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, says. "There is no provision in any executive order that governs the intelligence community that prevents this kind of thing...Cash is the mainstay of American covert operations in Afghanistan."

And this is not new. Here are a few other episodes in recent history in which the CIA has secretly sent wads of "ghost money" to the offices of foreign leaders:


Following the Western-backed coup in 1953 against democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, CIA officer Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt, Jr. (grandson of Teddy) sent over $1 million cash to General Fazlollah Zahedi, who replaced Mossadegh as prime minister.

South Vietnam

As American intervention in Vietnam deepened, the CIA lavished three-quarters of a million dollars on South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu between 1968 and 1969. He had come to power following years of chaos caused by the CIA-supported coup against South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

The Congo/Zaire

Being a vicious anti-communist authoritarian, President Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire received CIA dollars of appreciation during several decades of the Cold War. He rose to power in the early 1960s with the help of a lot of foreign-supplied guns and cash, much of which was provided to him by you know who.


Between the 1957 and 1977, the CIA allegedly paid millions of dollars to King Hussein of Jordan. Accounts of how these annual payments were used vary greatly. Some reports detail payments for extra security for the royal family, sports cars, and intel gathering.


Manuel Noriega, former US friend and military ruler of Panama, was on the agency payroll during his epic streak of racketeering, drug running, and money-laundering, as he turned Panama into his own private piggy bank. Shortly before Christmas 1989, President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion that got rid of him.

This is the kind of thing that "ghost money" buys you.