Mojo - August 2013

GOP Congressman Endorses Bogus Theory That Syria Got Its Chemical Weapons From Saddam

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 6:28 PM EDT

On Friday, the Obama administration released its assessment of last week's chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. The US government "assesses with high confidence" that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad carried out the attack, and that the Syrian government has a stockpile of sarin and other chemical agents. (UN chemical weapons experts are still working to confirm details regarding the attack.) This declassification was accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry's public statement, in which he called the attack a "crime against conscience" and "crime against humanity."

Something of this magnitude will always provoke a stream of conspiracy theories, some wilder than others. In a radio interview on Thursday, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) seemed to endorse one of them.

The Huffington Post reports:

"The theory then and the evidence was that Iraq was an enemy of the United States and had direct plans in either support of Al Qaeda and/or with other weapons that we found out weren't there—which I still think they were moved to Syria," said Terry. "And it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the chemical weapons that have been used by Syria actually came from Iraq."

[...]

When Becka asked whether Terry's claim about the transfer of weapons was based on information he had received as a member of Congress, Terry replied, "Gut feeling..."

This theory isn't new. Senior Bush administration officials publicly flirted with the idea that Iraq transferred weapons to other nations. The claim has been promoted on conservative media and Fox News many times over the years. In 2007, Mitt Romney said that it was "entirely possible" that weapons of mass destruction were moved from Iraq to Syria during the run-up to the Iraq war. The thing is that there is absolutely zero credible evidence that this was ever the case. I called up the State Department to ask about the theory the congressman rehashed. The first spokesperson I talked to simply laughed. The second could only say that the State Department doesn't "have any information on that."

For a firmer rebuttal, here's an AP report from January 2005:

[I]ntelligence and congressional officials say they have not seen any information—never "a piece," said one—indicating that WMD or significant amounts of components and equipment were transferred from Iraq to neighboring Syria, Jordan or elsewhere...The [Bush] administration acknowledged...that the search for banned weapons is largely over. The Iraq Survey Group’s chief, Charles Duelfer, is expected to submit the final installments of his report in February. A small number of the organization’s experts will remain on the job in case new intelligence on Iraqi WMD is unearthed.

But the officials familiar with the search say U.S. authorities have found no evidence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein transferred WMD or related equipment out of Iraq.

A special adviser to the CIA director, Duelfer declined an interview request through an agency spokesman. In his last public statements, he told a Senate panel last October that it remained unclear whether banned weapons could have been moved from Iraq.

"What I can tell you is that I believe we know a lot of materials left Iraq and went to Syria. There was certainly a lot of traffic across the border points," he said. "But whether in fact in any of these trucks there was WMD-related materials, I cannot say."

Last week, a congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said suggestions that weapons or components were sent from Iraq were based on speculation stemming from uncorroborated information.

After the subsequent report was released, Duelfer gave an interview to PBS NewsHour in which he expressed doubt that Iraq transferred WMDs to Syria prior to the US-led invasion. "Syria, we had some intelligence that perhaps some materials, suspicious materials, had been moved there," he said. "We looked as closely as we could at that, there were a few leads which we were not able to fully run down, largely because of the security situation, but it's my judgment that had substantial stocks, important stocks been moved to Syria, someone would have told something to us about that."

And in the years since, no new evidence has come to light suggesting otherwise. This all seems to conflict with Rep. Terry's "gut."

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Immigration Reform: Dead or Alive?

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 2:37 PM EDT

When Congress reconvenes in September, the immigration debate will pick up where it left off—that is, at a complete impasse. There is still broad, bipartisan support for comprehensive reform, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has refused to allow the bill passed by the Senate earlier this summer to come up for debate; instead, members of his caucus are pursuing piecemeal legislation that focuses primarily on border security. Meanwhile, the clock is running out. With a debt ceiling showdown looming this fall and the midterm elections fast approaching after that, it's unclear whether the congressional calendar will allow enough time for any immigration legislation to advance before the current session of Congress expires.

Immigration reform advocates are publicly optimistic, but there's plenty of cynicism among political observers. Last week, Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall declared reform dead and its proponents in denial that House Republicans will change their tune. Reformers should "forget the heroic measures to revive it," he argued, and "get about telling the public who killed it and holding them accountable for their actions" in the midterm elections.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has repeatedly said nothing will happen unless Boehner allows a vote on a broad path to citizenship for most of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants. Reform advocates are looking to October, when the bipartisan Gang of Seven plans to unveil its long-delayed comprehensive reform bill in House. The introduction of the bill will force House members to go on the record supporting or opposing the comprehensive, Senate-style reform bill and may eventually lead Boehner to bow to pressure on a path to citizenship.

"There's this sort of beltway conventional wisdom that we're dead, but we're optimistic," says Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, who responded to Marshall's cynical take with an open letter touting the resolve of the immigration reform movement. "The Republicans have to do something or risk going out of business as a viable national party."

Daniel Garza, a former Bush White House official who heads the Libre Initiative, an immigration reform group that approaches the topic from free-market perspective, doesn't see a path to citizenship as an all-or-nothing proposition. "At minimum, what we want is legality," he says. As a possible compromise with Democrats, some House Republicans have suggested a path to legalization that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, but would not lead to citizenship. "We feel that at minimum, that provides certainty to the folks who are coming here unauthorized that they won't be deported tomorrow, and we think that is significant enough to get behind what they're going to be proposing in the House."

"Republicans are for immigration reform, they're just not for what the Democrats are proposing," says Garza, who believes a path to citizenship will be limited to the something like the KIDS Act, which would only affect individuals brought to the country illegally when they were children. "Democrats have defined immigration reform as a path to citizenship," he adds, but while "publicly they won't tell you they would settle for legalization, I think secretly they would."

Sharry dismisses that as "wishful thinking," arguing that giving undocumented immigrants the ability to become permanent residents but not citizens would relegate them to a "permanent underclass." This is a proposition, he says, Democrats will reject out of hand.

Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, is more cautious. "I think it's a big assumption on both sides to say that under no circumstances would Democrats support, in the 11th hour, a program that didn't include a direct path to citizenship," she says. "But it's also hard to imagine there would be much of a political win for Republicans if they're supporting a second-class citizenship."

For now, it's a waiting game. "Republicans are going to have to make some really tough decisions, but ultimately they realize the demographic cliff they're falling off of is only getting higher and their fall is only getter harder," Kelley says.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 30, 2013

Fri Aug. 30, 2013 1:41 PM EDT

1st Lt. Jordan Farrar, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101 ABN DIV, fires a tube-launched, optically-tracked and wire-guided missile at a target while Cpl. Christopher Parker, observes at the heavy weapons range on Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan, August 14, 2013. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Todd A. Christopherson.

Bobby Jindal Takes a Shot at BP's Gulf Oil Spill PR Campaign (Updated)

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Bobby Jindal isn't happy with BP's faltering response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and he isn't shy about letting them hear about it. At an event on Wednesday, the Governor of Louisiana blasted the company for spending "more money on television commercials than they have on actually restoring the natural resources they impacted." Three years after the spill, in which a drilling rig blowout killed 11 men and poured 4 million barrels into the gulf, BP has started to push back on damages claims, and Jindal seems determined to make the company pay for it.

Addressing the Gulf Coastal Ecosystem Restoration Council (GCERC) Jindal said, "BP needs to stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their public relations campaign telling us how great they are and start proving it by addressing their Clean Water Act and Natural Resources Damage liabilities now." The GCERC is responsible for allocating money from the Clean Water Act fines paid after the Deepwater spill to restoration and economic recovery projects, and controls about 60 percent of the funds from those fines.

With the $8 billion dollar damages fund that BP set up after the spill has dwindled now looking like it will fall as much as $6 billion short, the company has rolled out a PR campaign alleging that it has been the target of fraud. BP has requested, and twice been denied, that the federal judge who presided over the settlement negotiation freeze payments until a state appointed investigator can look into potentially fraudulent claims, with the most recent refusal coming on Wednesday. Earlier this summer, the company set up a hotline for residents to "do the right thing" and report fraudulent claims (1-800-NO-2-FRAUD), and took out full-page ads in three of the county's largest newspapers pleading the case for honesty and fairness. ("Whatever you think about BP, we can all agree that it’s wrong for anyone to take money they don’t deserve," the ad read. "And it’s unfair to everyone in the Gulf—commercial fishermen, restaurant and hotel owners, and all the other hard-working people who’ve filed legitimate claims for real losses.")

BP's cries of foul play have found some sympathetic ears. In June, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover that read "BP is getting rolled in the Gulf," with a story cataloging the injustices that the company was up against: a feeding frenzy for settlement money, fraudulent claims, an uncooperative judge, and a generally unsympathetic public. And on top of it all, the line that BP has been spending more on commercials than on ecological restoration has become a familiar refrain coming from the governor's office, which the company has called "both false and irresponsible."

"Today we are working to ensure that our willingness to do the right thing is not taken advantage of and distorted to provide windfalls to undeserving businesses, including law firms," said BP spokesman Geoff Morrell in a statement earlier this week. The company has paid some $25 billion thus far, and is staring down another $3.5 to $17.5 billion, depending on a court ruling on the company's level of negligence.

But before Jindal gets a reputation as some kind of environmental hero, note that earlier this month he asked the courts to kill a lawsuit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East that hits many of the same issues that have him so fired up at BP. This might very well pan out just like things did after the spill, when critics pointed out that his sharp response had been overshadowed by his support for the kinds of anti-regulatory policies that had facilitated the blowout. It could be that the governor has found a good target, but his bluster doesn't match his politics.

Update, 8/30/2013: In response to governor Jindal's criticisms, Morrell released this statement: "Governor Jindal and his aide Garret Graves have completely misrepresented BP's record in the Gulf as well as the legal framework under which further funding related to the Deepwater Horizon accident would become available. Their political grandstanding contains patently false assertions, defies the demonstrated record of environmental recovery that has occurred across the Gulf, and defames the massive efforts of tens of thousands of people to foster prompt recovery and restoration. Not that BP or anyone else should be surprised—these recent comments are their latest in a series of over-the-top statements and overblown demands since the accident."

Memo: Justice Department Won't Meddle With States That Legalize Marijuana

| Thu Aug. 29, 2013 5:08 PM EDT

Mary Jane made a new friend today: an old bearded hippie named Uncle Sam.

In a memo released this afternoon, the Department of Justice signaled that it will not meddle with state efforts to legalize and regulate the consumption and sale of pot. "Basically what it says is that the federal government is waving a white flag," says Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Today's announcement is a major historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition."

The federal government typically hasn't prosecuted individual pot smokers, but the memo breaks new ground by applying a similarly permissive approach to marijuana dispensaries, which have often been the targets of federal raids. Under the new policy, the DOJ will leave recreational and medical pot dispensaries alone in states that it believes are regulating them adequately.

Prosecutors "should continue to review marijuana cases on a case-by-case basis," the memo says, "and weigh all available information and evidence, including, but not limited to, whether the operation is demonstrably in compliance with a strong and effective state regulatory system."

The DOJ signaled that it will allow Colorado and Washington to proceed with legalizing and regulating the sale and recreational consumption of marijuana so long as they can prevent:

  • Cannabis from being sold to minors
  • Pot revenue from going to criminal enterprises
  • Legally purchased marijuana from being diverted to states where it's illegal
  • State-authorized pot businesses from being used as legal cover for drug trafficking
  • Violence related to drug cultivation
  • Stoned driving
  • The cultivation of marijuana on public lands
  • Marijuana possession on federal property

"Those are all reasons we've cited for why we should tax and regulate marijuana," the MPP's Riffle points out.

But other pro-marijuana activists are concerned that the memo gives federal prosecutors too much leeway. In particular, it's not clear whether the feds will stop prosecuting pot dispensaries in California. Unlike Colorado and Washington, California provides little state-level oversight of its medical pot industry, relying instead on a patchwork of local laws.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 29, 2013

Thu Aug. 29, 2013 12:48 PM EDT

US Soldiers prepare a round for a fire support mission using an M119 105mm howitzer on Combat Outpost Wilderness, Paktya province, Afghanistan, August 15, 2013. US Army photo by Maj. Kamil Sztalkoper.

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Donald Rumsfeld, Iraq War Architect, Is Skeptical of Intervening in Syria

| Thu Aug. 29, 2013 12:10 PM EDT

Donald Rumsfeld weighed in yesterday on the Obama administration's possible plans to intervene militarily in Syria. He is skeptical and expressed confusion about the whole situation during an interview with Fox Business Network's Neil Cavuto:

There really hasn't been any indication from the administration as to what our national interest is with respect to this particular situation.

You remember Donald Rumsfeld. He was the 13th and 21st United States Secretary of Defense, first under President Gerald Ford and then President George W. Bush. His hobbies include playing squash and roping cattle. He has championed wrestling as an Olympic sport. He is one of the greatest unintentional poets of the 21st century. And he tweeted this last March:

There are, in fact, many reasons to be skeptical and cautious about bombing Syria; even if many of Rumsfeld's neoconservative brothers in arms haven't gotten that memo, yet. US intervention in the bloodshed in Syria may or may not work out, but Rumsfeld has zero credibility here. As a member of the Bush administration, Rumsfeld gave strong indication that it was in our, and everybody else's, national interest to—because of those weapons of mass destruction, of course—send ground troops to Iraq.

this /thisRight... That. Staff Sgt. Sean A. Foley/US Army

Report: The Government is Really, Really Bad at Keeping Records About Chemical Plants

| Thu Aug. 29, 2013 11:03 AM EDT

In April, a massive explosion ripped apart a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, killing 12 first responders and injuring at least 200 people. This didn't have to happen—as Mother Jones reporter previously, the disaster was a product of lax regulation and mismanagement at various levels of government, and a company that had taken few steps to protect itself or the community. (The county didn't even have a fire code.)

Just how bad is the oversight of chemical facilities like West Fertilizer Co.? According to a new report in the Dallas Morning News, 90 percent of the federal government's chemical safety data is wrong:

A Dallas Morning News analysis of more than 750,000 federal records found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300.

In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information.

As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety.

And that's just the beginning. Give it a read.

Why Are Fast Food Workers Walking Out Again?

| Thu Aug. 29, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

On Thursday, fast food workers around the country will walk off their jobs in what is expected to be the largest strike the $200 billion industry has ever seen.

Workers at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and KFC will strike in 50 cities—from Boston to Denver to Los Angeles—demanding a wage increase to $15 an hour. They will be joined by retail workers at stores like Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, and Walgreens, and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

The strikes follow a massive walkout by fast-food workers in July, and are the latest in an escalating series of strikes hitting the industry.

As we noted last month:

Many fast-food workers are paid at, or just above, the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is $7.25, though it's higher in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Fast-food wages have fallen 36 cents an hour since 2010, even as the industry has raked in record profits.

This is part of an economy-wide problem; the bottom 20 percent of American workers—some 28 million employees—earn less than $9.89 an hour, or $20,570 a year for a full-time employee. Their income fell five percent between 2006 and 2012. Meanwhile, average pay for chief executives at the country's top corporations leaped 16 percent last year, averaging $15.1 million...

The mobilization of fast-food workers is a pretty new thing, because the industry has traditionally had high turnover. But the slow economic recovery, which has been characterized by growth in mostly low-wage service sector jobs, has resulted in a growing population of adult fast-food workers who can't find other work.

Many fast food workers are forced to rely on public assistance just to get by.

Use our calculator to get a better sense of what fast-food workers are up against.

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Why Obama's March on Washington Anniversary Speech Ticked Off Some Black People

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 5:49 PM EDT

In May, President Barack Obama gave a commencement address at the historically black Morehouse College—Martin Luther King, Jr.'s alma mater—that was criticized by many black progressives as condescending for its focus on personal responsibility. He told the young graduates that "there's no longer any room for excuses" and that "whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame." In response, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, "Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of 'all America,' but he also is singularly the scold of 'black America.'"

This was hardly the first time Obama had ventured into such territory, and black critics have often complained that when he addresses black audiences, he turns into a presidential Bill Cosby, acknowledging inequality but also unproductively lecturing black people to stop making excuses for the challenges and problems they face. So it was no surprise that Obama's speech on Wednesday marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which noted that economic fairness for all remains "our great unfinished business" and which was generally well-received by Obama supporters, reiterated this riff:

And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots.

Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.

And there was no surprise that this slice of the speech got under some peoples' skin. Here are Twitter reactions from several black writers, intellectuals, and activists:

This likely won't be the last time Obama brings up the controversial theme. It's clear he's decided that in order to effectively speak about racial inequality and economic injustice, he has to throw in a dash of tough love.