Mojo - May 2013

Obama's Counterterrorism Speech: A Pivot Point on Drones and More?

| Thu May. 23, 2013 9:03 AM PDT

In recent years, conservative and liberal reaction to President Barack Obama's national security policies has often converged. Conservatives note that Obama has continued (or expanded) many of the Bush-Cheney policies and methods—drones, indefinite detention, military commissions, use of the state secrets privilege—and this, they proclaim, proves that the Bush-Cheney regime was not excessive or unlawful. Liberals, pointing to Obama's decisions in these areas, complain that the fellow who once campaigned against the excesses of the Bush-Cheney years has gone over to the dark side. A Justice Department white paper leaked in February explaining the administration's justification for targeted killing abroad of US citizens suspected of terrorism embodied the sort of executive power overreach associated with Obama's predecessor. And the Obama administration's fierce pursuit of national security leaks—which led the Justice Department to collect secretly information on the communications of the Associated Press and James Rosen of Fox News—reinforces the view that Obama has taken a step or two toward an imperial presidency.

White House aides rankle at any comparison to Bush and Cheney. They dutifully note that in his first days in office, Obama ended the use of torture (a.k.a. enhanced interrogation techniques) and declared his intention to shut down Guantanamo. (Gitmo remains open, but that's mainly because congressional Republicans and Democrats thwarted the White House effort to develop a high-security facility in the United States to house the detainees.) And the Obama-ites contend they have reformed some of the Bush-Cheney policies, such as the use of military commissions, to justify maintaining these practices. Also, they are not reluctant to add that Obama did end the war in Iraq and is downsizing the war in Afghanistan (at a faster pace than then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA chief David Petraeus urged in 2011). But much of this defense has tended to get lost as the administration has fired off drone strikes without acknowledging the individual attacks and has, following in the path of previous administrations, resisted certain congressional oversight efforts.

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GOP Food Stamps Proposal Would Discriminate Against African-Americans

| Thu May. 23, 2013 7:15 AM PDT

On Wednesday the Senate agriculture committee approved a GOP proposal that would amend the farm bill the Senate is considering to ban "convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles" from getting food stamps. On its surface, the idea sounds unobjectionable, but the measure would have "strongly racially discriminatory effects," according to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

The amendment, introduced by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), and agreed to by unanimous consent in the committee, would bar anyone who has ever been convicted of certain violent crimes—even if they committed the crimes in their youth and have served their sentence—from ever getting food stamps (called SNAP benefits) ever again. CBPP president Robert Greenstein slammed the amendment in a statement Tuesday, calling it "stunning." Because African Americans are incarcerated at a higher rate than other races, he says, "the amendment would have a skewed racial impact. Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit." Under current law, there is only a lifetime ban on food stamps for convicted drug felons, and many states have opted out of that ban.

The measure wouldn't just hurt ex-cons. Greenstein points out that "the amendment would mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members."

Plus the amendment could cause higher rates of recidivism. "Ex-offenders often have difficulty finding jobs that pay decent wages," Greenstein says. "The amendment could pose dilemmas for ex-offenders who are trying to go straight but can neither find jobs nor, as a result of the amendment, obtain enough food to feed their children and families."

The House of Representatives has also voted to cut food stamp funding from the farm bill; their plan would throw some 2 million people off the program.

There's still time to rethink the senators' ill-conceived plan, though, Greenstein says. "The farm bill is still on the floor, and the amendment can still be modified," he says. "Senators should gather the courage to step up to the plate and address this matter."

Immigration Bill Heads to the Full Senate, 200 Amendments Later

| Wed May. 22, 2013 5:39 PM PDT

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a sweeping immigration reform bill on Tuesday, but only after sifting through more than 200 amendments. The bill would give the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants a 13-year pathway to citizenship, which would be the biggest change to the immigration system in years.

So, is it the same compromise that its authors, the so-called "Gang of Eight," originally hammered out? The committee made a total of 141 revisions to the bill; here's a quick look at a few of the most notable:

  • No protections for same-sex couples: Democrats reluctantly let this widely discussed measure die in order to keep Republicans on board. It would have allowed a foreign-born member of a same-sex couple petition for legal residency, just as straight couples may do. Because it was withdrawn by its sponsor, committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), it's not technically a revision. "With a heavy heart, and as a result of my conclusion that Republicans will kill this vital legislation if this anti-discrimination amendment is added, I will withhold calling for a vote on it," Leahy said. "But I will continue to fight for equality."
  • Protections to keep families together: An amendment introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) would require officials to ask immigrants in detention centers whether they are the parents or guardians of children so that the impact of their potential deportation on their families can be assessed.
  • Additional benefits for DREAMers: An amendment introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) would allow immigrants who arrived before the age of 16 to join the military and subsequently apply for citizenship as an alternative to deportation. Another amendment, introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), would give high school grads access to financial aid (with the exception of Pell Grants).
  • Limiting the use of solitary confinement: Currently, immigrants being processed through detention facilities are sometimes held in solitary confinement for weeks on end: The New York Times recently reported 35 cases of immigrants held there for more than 10 weeks. Another Blumenthal amendment would largely prohibit involuntary confinement exceeding 15 days.
  • Visa allowances: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) won approval for an amendment backed by the tech industry that would allow companies to hire foreign workers with H-1B visas before first offering the jobs to qualified citizens, as it is now required, unless more than 15 percent of the current employees in a specific field within that company are already on H-1B visas.
  • Safer deportations: Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) authored an amendment to cut down on risky deportations. Mexican immigrants might still be dropped off in a border towns rife with kidnappings and gang violence, but Coons' revision to the immigration bill would stop the practice of nighttime deportations.
  • Airport tracking system: Another amendment introduced by Hatch would set up fingerprint tracking systems in 10 major airports. Officials currently keep tabs on immigrants flying into the United States; this amendment would require immigrants to be fingerprinted upon both departure to a foreign country and arrival back in the US.

Overall, the immigration reform bill cleared the Judiciary Committee without any fundamental changes. But, in order to not upend the precarious bipartisan balance struck by the Gang of Eight, the committee rejected some more partisan amendments such as the LGBT protection measure and a border security measure from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Now it's off to the full Senate, where senators will have the chance to offer even more amendments on the floor in June before voting on the final bill.

The Obama Administration Finally Admits Killing 4 Americans

| Wed May. 22, 2013 4:00 PM PDT

After nearly two years of (officially) keeping quiet about what the whole world already knew, the Obama administration on Wednesday formally acknowledged that the United States government had indeed killed four American citizens in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. This had been fairly common knowledge ever since the strikes occurred in 2011, but the White House, CIA, and other involved parties have maintained (but not really) an official policy of not acknowledging that a targeted killing program exists.

Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that the administration had signed off on a drone strike that killed, without due process, the Al Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September 2011 in a letter sent to congressional leaders on Wednesday, which was obtained by New York Times reporter Charlie Savage. The letter also acknowledged the killing of Samir Khan (killed in the same drone operation), Awlaki's teenage son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (killed in Yemen later that month), and Jude Mohammed (killed in Pakistan in November 2011). However, all except Anwar al-Awlaki were "not specifically targeted by the United States," according to Holder's letter.

"Today's disclosure builds on the administration's effort to pursue greater transparency around our counter-terrorism operations," an anonymous White House official told Fox News correspondent Ed Henry.

Here is Holder's letter:

The letter was released the day before President Obama is scheduled to deliver a big speech on national security at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He is expected to touch on his administration's controversial ramped-up use of drone warfare and the status of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The last time Obama publicly discussed US drone strikes and his administration's targeted killing program was in a Google+ "Fireside Hangout" on February 14:

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 counter-terrorism 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 counter-terrorism. There have to be legal checks and balances on it.

Boy Scouts: Gays Okay. Treehuggers Not So Much.

| Wed May. 22, 2013 3:56 PM PDT

The board that governs the Boy Scouts of America plans to vote on Thursday on a proposal to lift the ban on gay members.

But while the organization may soon welcome gay scouts, they are apparently not so welcoming of treehuggers. The Center for Investigative Reporting posted a story this week on the Scouts booting out Kim Kuska, a naturalist and former biology teacher who been affiliated with the Scouts for 50 years, over his "obsession" with protecting the rare Dudley's lousewort:

Since the 1970s, the Eagle Scout and adult Scout leader-turned-whistle-blower has worked to protect the plant from extinction at Camp Pico Blanco, a Boy Scout camp nestled in the mountains along the Little Sur River south of Monterey, Calif. The camp is home to nearly 50 percent of all known specimens of Dudley’s lousewort, a flowering fern-like plant found in only three places in the world.

But over the past four decades, Scout officials and camp staff have threatened its existence repeatedly by harvesting old-growth trees it needs to survive, crushing some of the few remaining plants and introducing potentially competitive species. Under state law, it is illegal to harm a plant that is classified as rare.

The camp also cut down several trees in the old-growth forest in 2011 without a permit, a Scout official acknowledged.

Kuska's whistleblowing reportedly got him drummed out of the Scouts earlier this month. Read the whole story here.

VIDEO: Elizabeth Warren Grills Treasury Secretary on Too Big to Fail

| Tue May. 21, 2013 5:03 PM PDT

At a Senate banking committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) grilled Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on too-big-to-fail banks—financial institutions that are so large that their failure would endanger the entire financial system.

"How big do the biggest banks have to get before we consider breaking them up?” she asked.

Too big to fail is far from over. The largest financial institutions are still ballooning in size. In the past few years, banks have been beset by one scandal after another—from money laundering, to rate-fixing, to foreclosure fraud, and have mostly received wrist-slaps as punishment—probably because, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently warned, prosecuting too-big-to-fail banks for bad behavior might spook the entire financial system.

Too big to fail almost died three years ago. Warren noted that as the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law was being crafted, an amendment was proposed that would have broken up the banks, but it didn't pass—in large part, she reminded Lew, because the Treasury Department (then under Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner) was against it.

"Have you changed your position," Warren demanded, referring to the Treasury department. "Or are you still opposed to capping the size of banks?"

Lew responded that "ending too big to fail is our policy and we're aiming to do it." But Warren wouldn't let him weasel out of the question with generalities. "I want to focus you in here," she pushed. "My question is about capping the size of largest financial institutions."

Lew refused to commit. "Our job right now is to implement…Dodd-Frank," he said. "I think this is not the time to be enacting big changes."

"Let me try the question a different way," Warren persisted. "How big do the biggest banks have to get before we consider breaking them up?" she asked, adding that the largest American banks are 30 percent larger than they were five years ago. "Do they have to double in size? Triple in size? Quadruple in size? Before we talk about breaking up the biggest financial institutions?"

Lew said that too big to fail "is an unacceptable policy", but urged Warren to have some patience.

She'd have none of Lew's excuses: "What we've seen…is one scandal after another in these largest financial institutions," she said. "It's clear they have not changed their risk bearing practices nor have they decided that they're suddenly going to start following the law."

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Judges Strike Down Arizona's 20-Week Abortion Ban

| Tue May. 21, 2013 3:48 PM PDT

On Tuesday, judges on the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Arizona law that would have banned abortions at 20 weeks. The judges called the law "unconstitutional under an unbroken stream of Supreme Court authority." This is the first 20-week ban to be struck down in court. (Correction: Idaho's ban was also found unconstitutional in March.)

The judges wrote that Arizona "may not deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at any point prior to viability," echoing the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade 40 years ago that abortion should be legal up to the point that a fetus is can survive outside of the womb, which is usually construed as 24 weeks.

Anti-abortion state legislatures have passed a number of laws in recent years shortening the period in which abortion is legal. Arizona's 20-week ban was not the first in the US, but it was the first one that national reproductive rights groups challenged in court. It was, at the time, the strictest in the country, as it dated the 20 weeks from a woman's most recent menstruation rather than from the date of conception. (Taking basic biology and math into account, the bill actually banned abortion 18 weeks after the woman became pregnant). But after the Arizona law was passed in April 2012, other states passed even stricter rules; Arkansas banned abortions at 12 weeks in March 2013, and North Dakota banned them at 6 weeks a few weeks later.

Meanwhile, an anti-abortion lawmaker from Arizona has been trying to export the law. Republican Congressman Trent Franks introduced a bill last week that would impose a 20-week ban in Washington, DC as well.

Reproductive rights groups hope that Tuesday's ruling sends a warning to other states that might consider similar restrictions. "Today's decision is a huge victory in the fight to protect women's fundamental reproductive rights, and it should send a clear message to anti-choice politicians that their attempts to deprive pregnant women of critical health care are clearly unconstitutional and will not hold up in court," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which joined with the ACLU to challenge the Arizona law.

The Center for Reproductive Rights also filed suit against another anti-abortion law in North Dakota earlier this month, and is expected to challenge the state's 6-week ban as well. CRR and the ACLU also won a preliminary injunction last week blocking Arkansas' 12-week ban from taking effect.

Former IRS Chief: "I Certainly Am Not Personally Responsible" for Tea Party Scandal

| Tue May. 21, 2013 2:00 PM PDT
Former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman.

Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee who ran the tax agency when low-level employees wrongly singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny, testified on Tuesday before Congress for the first time since the scandal erupted on May 10. Senators hoping for new revelations or a mea culpa from Shulman, however, were left wanting. He said little about why IRS staffers targeted tea party groups and others for some 18 months, and he repeatedly downplayed his own role.

But one thing was clear from the hearing: The fallout from the IRS' tea party debacle isn't over, and its implications may spill over into campaign finance rules. J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general who investigated the IRS' actions, said his office will be auditing how the IRS oversees politically active nonprofit groups and presumably how the agency determines which nonprofits are too political. That's potentially big news for the money-in-politics world: Nonprofits spent hundreds of millions of dollars during the 2012 campaign, and as the IRS scandal has further revealed, the agency's process for determining how much politicking by a group runs afoul of regulations is vague and confusing.

Conviction of Genocidal Dictator Efrain Rios Montt Overturned by Guatemala's Highest Court

| Tue May. 21, 2013 10:43 AM PDT

On Monday, Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned the conviction of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, an army general who ruled as de facto president from 1982 to 1983. On May 10, Ríos Montt, 86, was found guilty by a three-panel tribunal on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years in the slammer; he is the first former head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide. But less than two weeks later, Guatemala's highest court threw out all proceedings in the case dating back to April 19, in part thanks to an aggressive lobbying effort by the nation's most influential business federation. Due to the court's 3-2 decision, the way forward—for Ríos Montt's opponents, for his supporters—has been thrown into question. After Monday's ruling, Ríos Montt was sent back to house arrest, where he had been since the case started in January 2012.

Here's a quick reminder of who Efraín Ríos Montt is, and what he did.

1. During his 17-month stint as military dictator, he oversaw the genocide by his armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the indigenous Maya Ixil population. Roughly 100 survivors testified during the course of his trial.

Efrain Rios Montt newspaper trial
This Guatemala City newspaper reads, "Ríos Montt charged with 11 massacres." Via Granito: How to Nail a Dictator/Facebook

2. Along with the mass murder, his military regime carried out a policy of forced displacement, forced assimilation, torture, systematic rape and sexual assault, starvation, and arbitrary execution against those labeled as political opponents.

3. Due to his staunchly anti-communist attitudes during the Guatemalan Civil War, the general received plenty of financial, military, and political support from President Ronald Reagan's administration and friends in the United States. (Ríos Montt is an alumnus of the School of the Americas, a Department of Defense-owned institute and notorious tyrant-mill at Fort Benning, Georgia that taught torture, blackmail, death-squad tactics, and counter-insurgency to numerous Latin American strongmen and human rights abusers.)

Here's Reagan speaking to reporters following his meeting with Ríos Montt in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on December 4, 1982:

Well, ladies and gentlemen, President Ríos Montt and I have just had a useful exchange of ideas on the problems of the region and on our bilateral relations...I know that President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. His country is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala. I have assured the president that the United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy and to address the root causes of this violent insurgency. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.

For all the accusations of obscene human rights violations, Reagan maintained that Ríos Montt was simply getting a "bum rap" from naïve activists.

White House Learned of IRS Tea Party Probe Early—But Didn't Tell Obama

| Tue May. 21, 2013 7:23 AM PDT

President Obama's chief of staff and the White House's top lawyer got wind of an inspector general's investigation into the IRS' singling out of tea partiers and conservative groups several weeks before the report went public. But those officials, according to press secretary Jay Carney, did not tell Obama. The president says he learned about the IRS' screw-up only after an agency director apologized on Friday, May 10, for employees having targeted conservative groups—an apology that went viral.

Carney told reporters Monday it was "appropriate" that Obama wasn't told of the damning IG report beforehand. And the president, he said, wasn't angry to not have been given early notice. "He believes it's entirely appropriate that, you know, some matters are not appropriate to convey to him and this is one of them," Carney said.

As we've reported, a Treasury Department inspector general, at the behest of angry members of Congress, spent nine months probing whether IRS staffers targeted tea party groups and other right-leaning conservative outfits who had applied for tax-exempt status under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code. Although staffers did in fact zero in on conservative groups, the IG's report concluded that political bias did not play a role. Instead, staffers used "inappropriate criteria"—catchwords such as "tea party," "patriot," or "9/12 Project" (the latter a creation of conservative talk show host Glenn Beck)—to look for groups that might've been too involved in politics. (Groups that file their taxes under 501(c)(4) can dabble in politics, but it can't be their "primary activity.") IRS employees got away with this due to "insufficient oversight" by the higher-ups in Washington, the report found.

Testifying before Congress last week, Steven Miller, the acting IRS commissioner who will soon resign as a result of the agency's tea party debacle, echoed the IG's findings. He said IRS employees made "foolish mistakes" and that the agency's behavior was "obnoxious." But those employees did not have a grudge against conservative groups. Their errors, Miller said, "were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection."

"What did they know" and "when did they know it" are two big questions looming over the IRS scandal. Here's what we know right now: Almost a month before IG's report came out last Tuesday, a staffer in the office of White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler learned of the report. Ruemmler herself was briefed on April 24. Soon after, she informed Denis McDonough, Obama's chief of staff. Carney said the president was not told of the investigation because there was nothing to be done about it. Also the White House did not want to appear to be interfering with an inspector general's report on such a sensitive issue. There is no evidence yet that Obama or his top aides knew about the investigation before this year.

Here is the IG's report: