Mojo - November 2013

Park Service to Congress: Only YOU Can Prevent Government Shutdowns

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the frustration Americans felt during the October government shutdown, which cost the economy an estimated $24 billion, than the furor over the shuttering of more than 400 federal national parks. Republicans accused Democrats of keeping veterans from seeing the World War II monument in Washington, DC. Democrats blamed the Republicans (who effectively held the nation's budget hostage for 16 days until they couldn't politically afford to anymore) of seizing the park issue to distract from the economy. But now, the US National Park Service—which lost $450,000 a day in park entry and activity fees during the shutdown—has a new message for Congress: No, we're not going prepare for another government shutdown, because you need to do your job.

The smack-down took place at a hearing last week before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, which weighed in on a new bill introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) in October. The Provide Access and Retain Continuity (PARC) Act, which has 17 Republican co-sponsors, would allow states to keep national parks operating in the event of another shutdown and would make them eligible for reimbursement by the federal government. (During the shutdown, six states entered into a similar agreement.) Right now, the government is only funded until January 15, meaning that Republicans could potentially pull the same shenanigans all over again in 2014. Stewart tells Mother Jones, "This bill is designed to provide some safeguards to local communities that rely heavily on access to public lands in the event that a shutdown does occur."

According to a National Park Service spokesman, more than 11 million people were unable to visit parks during the shutdown, and the park service lost about $7 million in park entry fees. The Park Service also estimates that communities within 60 miles of a national park suffered a collective negative economic impact of $76 million for each day of the shutdown. But Bruce Sheaffer, Comptroller of the National Park Service,testified that the agency "strongly opposes the bill." He said:

We have a great deal of sympathy for the businesses and communities that experienced a disruption of activity and loss of revenue during last month’s government shutdown and that stand to lose more if there is another funding lapse in the future. However, rather than only protecting certain narrow sectors of the economy...from the effects of a government shutdown in the future, Congress should protect all sectors of the economy by enacting appropriations on time, so as to avoid any future shutdowns.

Sheaffer took issue with other parts of the bill, noting that forcing the Park Service to rely on state revenue would be "a poor use of already strained departmental resources" and would "seriously undermine the longstanding framework established by Congress for the management of federal lands." While Sheaffer didn't object to another GOP-backed bill on the table—the Protecting States, Opening National Parks Act, which would reimburse states for National Park expenses incurred during the October shutdown—he concluded that planning for another shutdown "is not a responsible alternative to simply making the political commitment to provide appropriations for all the vital functions the federal government performs."

Scheaffer's position had support from Rep. Raul Grijalva, (D-Ariz.), who told Cronkite News Service at the hearing, "We shouldn’t be coming up with doomsday preparations." But Stewart says, "The [Park Service] opposition is odd and misses the point. Of course the preferred course of action is to avoid future lapses in funding." He adds, "While I cannot predict the future, I do not anticipate another shutdown during the 113th Congress."

When Mother Jones asked the National Park service whether it considered the GOP's fixation on funding national parks a way to deflect blame away from the shutdown, a spokesman said, "Your question asks us to speculate on an issue. We don't do that."

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Dems Say Boehner Blocking Farm Bill, Wants More Food Stamp Cuts

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 2:13 PM EST

Over the past month, the House and Senate have been working to come up with a compromise farm bill—the five-year piece of legislation that funds agriculture and nutrition programs. The main sticking point is the level of cuts to the food stamp program. House Republicans want to cut $40 billion from the program, while the Senate wants to trim $4 billion. Last week, the talks fell apart, and the two sides are fighting over why.

A Democratic aide tells Mother Jones that House Speaker John Boehner shot down several informal compromise farm bill proposals because the food stamps cuts were not deep enough. Boehner's spokesman denies this.

The Democratic aide says the joint House-Senate panel that is trying to work out a deal presented Boehner with a few proposals that contained food stamps levels close to what the Senate wants. Even though Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)—the chairman of the House agriculture committee and a top member of the compromise panel—was willing to give a lot of ground to the Senate on food stamps, he says, Boehner rejected the proposals. "Boehner is playing spoiler," he adds. "That's why [negotiations] fell apart."

Another source familiar with the negotiations echoes the Dem aide's claim, saying that the House leadership has Lucas on a tight leash. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is on the compromise committee, told Congressional Quarterly the same thing last week. "I'm hearing that the speaker still keeps inserting his people into the process," and that House members on the farm bill compromise panel "have to go and check with the speaker’s people [who] say they want this and this and this. I hear that's one of our major problems."

But a spokesman for Boehner says the assertion that Boehner shot down the food stamps proposals "is absurd." He adds that "the Speaker has full confidence" in Lucas and the rest of the House GOP team that is working out a compromise farm bill. On Friday, Lucas said negotiations stalled because of differences over the crop subsidy provisions in the legislation.

If Boehner did reject the compromise committee's food-stamp proposals, he adhered to something called the Hastert rule—an informal measure used to limit the power of the minority—which says that a "majority of the majority" party must support a bill before it is brought up for a vote. It was first used by former House speaker Dennis Hastert in the mid-90s.

Boehner may not use the Hastert rule on the farm bill, but time is running out to reach an agreement. The two sides were supposed to have a final compromise bill on the House floor by December 13. A Senate agriculture committee aide says that negotiations are technically still ongoing, but the deadline may be pushed into next year. The farm bill is already more than a year behind schedule.

If fruitless negotiations end up delaying a farm bill for another year, Democrats may be the unlikley winners. Some Dems have been considering voting against any compromise farm bill in order to kill the bill. If that happens, food stamps would continue to be funded at current levels.

Judge Agrees to Resentence Rapist Who Got No Prison Time

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 1:02 PM EST

Following a national outcry, the Alabama judge who sentenced Austin Smith Clem to probation and no prison time for three rape convictions has agreed to reconsider the sentence. The judge, James Woodroof, filed an order Tuesday indicating his intention to resentence Clem. Brian Jones, the district attorney for Limestone County, in north central Alabama, had previously appealed the sentence as too lenient.

In September, a Limestone County jury found Clem, 25, guilty of raping Courtney Andrews, a teenage acquaintance and his then-neighbor, three times—twice when she was 14, and again when was she was 18. Clem's defense attorney did not call any witnesses at trial. After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury returned guilty verdicts against Clem on one count of first-degree rape and two counts of second-degree rape.

On November 13, Woodroof ruled that Clem would be punished by serving two years in a program aimed at nonviolent criminals and three years of probation.

Clem's victim, now 20, said she was "livid" when she first heard the verdict. Her case has since received national attention. On Sunday, she appeared on MSNBC, where she told Melissa Harris-Perry, "I need for him to be in prison. I’m not going to feel safe other than that."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 27, 2013

Wed Nov. 27, 2013 11:02 AM EST

Soldiers participating in the 2013 Best Warrior competition conduct physical training. U.S. Army photo by SPC Coty Kuhn.

CBS News' Benghazi Review Leaves Several Big Questions Unanswered

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 4:24 PM EST

It's not surprising that CBS News today announced that 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan and her producer Max McClellan were taking (or being forced to accept?) leaves of absence after an internal review confirmed the obvious: they had botched their now infamous Benghazi report and helped perpetuate a hoax crafted by Dylan Davies, a security consultant who claimed he had been at the compound the night of the attack.

The review's summary findings—which you can read here—note that the contradictions between the account Davies was peddling in public (via a book) and the information he provided to the FBI and the State Department were "knowable" prior to the airing of Logan's report. Logan and McClellan, the review found, "did not sufficiently vet Davies’ account of his own actions and whereabouts that night." No kidding. And the report suggests that Logan was driven by both a desire to find something new in a story already much covered and her belief that the Obama administration was misrepresenting the threat posed by Al Qaeda. This is damning: she failed to do a basic task of reporting and she might have had an agenda.

The review does not answer all the questions that popped up following the 60 Minutes report, especially this one: why the hell did CBS News continue to defend this story after evidence emerged that Davies had fabricated his tale? The summary findings note:

After the story aired, the Washington Post reported the existence of a so-called "incident report" that had been prepared by Davies for Blue Mountain in which he reportedly said he spent most of the night at his villa, and had not gone to the hospital or the mission compound. Reached by phone, Davies told the 60 Minutes team that he had not written the incident report, disavowed any knowledge of it, and insisted that the account he gave 60 Minutes was word for word what he had told the FBI. Based on that information and the strong conviction expressed by the team about their story, [CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer] Jeff Fager defended the story and the reporting to the press.

Hold on. One of the best newspapers in the world reports the existence of documentary evidence that blows the credibility of your super-duper source out of the water, and what do you do? You call the source and ask him if he told you the truth? When the source insists that he did, you take his word and stick to the story? This does not seem like best practices. The Post report should have triggered a five-alarm alert within CBS News. But this much-storied media institution seemingly brushed it aside. It was only after The New York Times told CBS News that it had discovered that Davies' account did not match what he had told the FBI that 60 Minutes kicked into action:

Within hours, CBS News was able to confirm that in the FBI's account of their interview, Davies was not at the hospital or the mission compound the night of the attack. 60 Minutes announced that a correction would be made, that the broadcast had been misled, and that it was a mistake to include Davies in the story.

In other words, the Times had to do CBS News' own job.

That might be the most embarrassing aspect of this episode. Logan and McClellan screwed up big time—and their motivations are fair game. But CBS News hung on to the Davies fiction after there was reason to suspect the network had been fooled and exploited. (The right-wing Benghazi truthers—this means you, Sen. Lindsey Graham—had jumped on the 60 Minutes report like fleas to a dog.) Did the brass at CBS News calculate that the network could ride out the storm? If so, they were thinking like political spinmeisters, not news people. That's a blemish that won't fade soon.

The CIA Trained Gitmo Detainees as Double Agents at a Secret Facility Named After a Beatles Song

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 1:52 PM EST

Between 2003 and 2006, the CIA recruited and trained a small number of Guantanamo Bay detainees as double agents, according to an Associated Press report published on Tuesday. The program was run out of a clandestine facility near the military prison, and—according to US officials—was useful in gathering intel for targeting and killing Al Qaeda leaders. (CIA officers would typically meet with double agents in Afghanistan.)

"Jail time at Guantanamo is a new asset on the résumés of many double agents, security officials say—an ultimate sign of credibility that often makes them revered and trusted among senior operatives," another AP story, from 2010, reads.

In 2009, President Obama ordered a review of the double agents recruited during the Gitmo program because the agents provided intel used in drone-strike operations, according to one of the officials interviewed. But perhaps the most attention-grabbing part of the AP's new investigation is that the CIA's old double-agent facility was nicknamed after a Beatles song.

Here's the relevant text from the AP (emphasis mine):

The program was carried out in a secret facility built a few hundred yards from the administrative offices of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The eight small cottages were hidden behind a ridge covered in thick scrub and cactus.

The program and the handful of men who passed through these cottages had various official CIA code names.

But those who were aware of the cluster of cottages knew it best by its sobriquet: Penny Lane.

It was a nod to the classic Beatles song and a riff on the CIA's other secret facility at Guantanamo Bay, a prison known as Strawberry Fields.

Paul McCartney, the principal songwriter for "Penny Lane," did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how he felt about this.

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Federal Judge Says Illinois Same-Sex Couple Can Marry Early

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 1:06 PM EST

Last week, Illinois became the sixteenth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Though the law isn't scheduled to take effect until June 1, 2014, one couple has been granted permission to marry seven months early. 

A federal judge has ordered that an expedited marriage license be issued to Vernita Gray—who has terminal breast cancer—and her longtime partner Patricia Ewert. Gray, 64 and Ewert, 65, who have been together for five years, will become the first same-sex couple to be legally wed in Illinois. 

"I have two cancers, bone and brain and I just had chemo today," Gray told NBC Chicago. "I am so happy to get this news. I’m excited to be able to marry and take care of Pat, my partner and my family, should I pass."

On Friday, two days after Governor Pat Quinn signed the marriage equality bill, Ewert and Gray, who isn't expected to live until June, filed a lawsuit with Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights legal organization, seeking permission to marry immediately. On Monday, US District Judge Thomas Durkin agreed and ordered Cook County Clerk David Orr to issue the couple a marriage license.

"As a supporter of same-sex marriage, I'm pleased Judge Durkin granted relief to Patricia Ewert and Vernita Gray in this difficult time," Orr said in a statement to the Chicago Tribune.

Though they've been in a civil union since 2011, Gray and Ewert do not enjoy the full protections of marriage. “I believe the most important thing for Vernita was to be able to protect Pat,” a close friend of the couple told the Chicago Sun-Times. "And with Social Security and federal benefits and how estates are handled in a marriage, it really makes them full-class citizens in Illinois."

Read US District Judge Thomas Durkin's ruling below:

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 26, 2013

Tue Nov. 26, 2013 11:00 AM EST

The “dead leg crawl” is one of nine obstacles on the Air Assault obstacle course at Fort Bliss, Texas. Pvt. Sonja Robinson, human resources specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Armored Division, survived the barbed wire and completed the course with her company during Sergeant’s Time Training, Nov. 14. Photo by Spc. Jeanita C. Pisachubbe, 1st AD CAB Public Affairs.

Food Stamp Costs Are Decreasing Without The GOP's Cuts

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 7:00 AM EST

As Congress debates renewing the farm bill, Republicans have been pressing for big cuts to the food stamp budget as part of the negotiations. House GOP leaders want to slash as much as $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next decade, a cut that would affect nearly four million low-income people. Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), a former funeral director and current House pointman in the negotiations, has called the "explosion of food stamps in this country" the "defining moral issue of our time," and he's set out to "reform" the program by imposing work requirements on recipients.

Southerland would specifically push states to end SNAP benefits for poor families in areas of high unemployment. The premise behind his reform proposals is that the food stamp program is "growing into oblivion." But a new study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that in fact, enrollment in the food program, which hit a record during the recession, has already started to plateau and is projected to decline about five percent next year even if Congress does absolutely nothing. 

Part of that decline is the result of a seven-percent, across-the-board cut that went into effect November 1 with the expiration of about $5 billion in funding increases from the 2009 stimulus bill. But even without that cut, caseloads have been stabilizing since 2011 and remained flat this year. Now, the Congressional Budget Office projects that, barring any major fiscal disasters, the food stamp budget is on track to return to 1995 levels in about five years, falling about two to five percent a year as the economy recovers. All this even if Congress doesn't do anything to "reform" a program that kept nearly five million people (2.2 million of them children) out of poverty last year and is responsible for broad economic and public health gains.

If Southerland gets his way, though, instead of letting a recovering economy pare down food stamp spending, Congress will throw 1.7 million of the nation's poorest people out of the program—people whose annual income is less than $2,500 a year—and incentivize the states to drop even more so they can use the savings on other things, like tax cuts for the wealthy. It's times like these when doing nothing seems like a good idea.

Sandy Hook Crime Report: Adam Lanza Obsessed With Mass Murder and Dance Dance Revolution

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 1:39 AM EST
Entrance to Sandy Hook Elementary where Adam Lanza shot his way in.

In the three months leading up to his rampage, Adam Lanza only communicated with his mother via email even though they lived in the same house. Prior to leaving on a short trip a few days before her son would murder her and head to Sandy Hook Elementary, Nancy Lanza cooked him some of his favorite dishes. Adam Lanza frequently spent his weekends at a local theater playing Dance Dance Revolution for up to 10 hours at a time. At the time of his death, the 6-foot tall Lanza weighed only 112 pounds. Those are among the new revelations from Connecticut State's Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky's final report on the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which was released today. 

The long-awaited official documentation of the December 14, 2012 massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead is only a summary of the yet-to-be released final crime report, which is estimated to run thousands of pages, according to the Hartford Courant. The summary report includes a timeline of the police response to Sandy Hook, starting with the first 911 call. It also offers some insight into the family history, interests, and mental health of the shooter, painting a dark picture of a deeply disturbed individual, but offering no conclusive motive for why he did it.

Included in the report is an inventory of video games he owned, along with a record of some of the evidence recovered from Lanza's hard drives, such as images of him brandishing weapons, movies depicting mass shootings, and videos of people committing suicide by gunshot. Included in a separate appendix to the report are search warrants, photos of the crime scenes, and Lanza's toxicology report (no drugs or alcohol were found in his system).