Mojo - November 2013

Corn on "Hardball": Has Obama Delivered on Foreign Policy Promises?

Mon Nov. 25, 2013 10:32 PM EST

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Chris Matthews tonight about how far Obama has come towards meeting his foreign policy goals.

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

Advertise on MotherJones.com

FDA Reviewing Evidence That Morning-After Pill Doesn't Work in Women Weighing Over 176 Pounds

| Mon Nov. 25, 2013 5:44 PM EST

Monday morning, Mother Jones reported that the European manufacturer of an emergency contraceptive pill identical to Plan B, also known as the morning-after pill, will warn women that the drug is completely ineffective in women weighing more than 176 pounds, and begins to lose effectiveness in women weighing more than 165 pounds. HRA Pharma, which makes the European drug, Norlevo, asked European regulators for permission to change the drug's labeling after reviewing its own clinical data and scientific research from 2011 which showed emergency contraceptives are prone to fail in women with higher body mass indexes.

Now the Food and Drug Administration has responded to this story, telling Mother Jones that FDA officials are weighing whether pharmaceutical companies that sell similar emergency contraceptive pills in the US must change their labeling. Many popular morning-after pills sold in the US—including one-pill emergency contraceptives Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, and My Way, as well as a number of generic two-pill emergency contraceptives—are chemically identical to Norlevo, which also uses the chemical compound levonorgestrel to prevent pregnancy after sex. 

"The FDA is currently reviewing the available and related scientific information on this issue, including the publication upon which the Norlevo labeling change was based," FDA spokeswoman Erica Jefferson writes in an email. "The agency will then determine what, if any, labeling changes to approved emergency contraceptives are warranted."

Jefferson declined to say when the FDA began its review. If FDA officials feel they have sufficient data to justify a change to product information, the FDA can order companies to update their labels. Jefferson adds that US drug companies have a legal obligation to alert the FDA if new information makes their existing labeling inaccurate.

John Bolton: The Only Option in Iran Is War

| Mon Nov. 25, 2013 1:09 PM EST

It's refreshing when a neoconservative says what he really wants. Hours after the Obama administration announced an interim agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program, John Bolton, the hawk's hawk of the neocon crowd (remember when he practically yearned for terrorists to blow up Chicago with a nuclear device to teach Barack Obama a lesson?), was busy penning a piece for The Weekly Standard decrying the deal as an "abject surrender" of President Obama to the mullahs of Iran. Bolton essentially makes the familiar (and hyperbolic) conservative case that any deal that does not start with Iran trashing all of its nuclear equipment is yet another Munich moment. From this perspective, there can be no bargaining with Tehran—that is, no diplomacy. The only acceptable path is absolutist demands from the United States and its allies and total capitulation from Iran. Now what are the odds of that yielding success?

Bolton is honest enough to acknowledge that talking, as he sees it, will lead to nothing but an Iran armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. Thus, his article ends with this assertion: "in truth, an Israeli military strike is the only way to avoid Tehran's otherwise inevitable march to nuclear weapons." Thank you, Ambassador, for such candor. He is acknowledging that from his perch there is nothing Obama can do short of giving Bibi Netanyahu the green light for a military assault on Iran. Consequently, Bolton's critique of the details of the negotiations deserves little attention, for he's set on war, not diplomacy—a view that may well be reflected throughout hawkish conservative circles.

If this is not enough to discount Bolton's take on the interim accord, there's also history. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, he declared, "We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq," noting that the US role in Iraq after any invasion would be "fairly minimal." For years afterward—after no WMDs were found in Iraq—Bolton continued to claim the WMD case for that war was justified. Despite this lousy track record, Bolton, like other neocons, is hardly bashful when it comes to making dire statements about Iran's nuclear programs and dismissing ongoing efforts at peaceful resolution. But give him credit for being clear about his bottom-line: let's skip all the chatting and get right to war.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 25, 2013

Mon Nov. 25, 2013 11:00 AM EST

Marines with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment Reconnaissance, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and French Army and Navy personnel conduct combined parachute operations in Djibouti Nov. 13, 2013. The 13th MEU is deployed with the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group as a theater reserve and crisis response force throughout the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Jared Padula/Released.

Corporate Donors Stick With GOP Hardliners After the Shutdown

| Mon Nov. 25, 2013 10:58 AM EST

October's tea party-inspired government shutdown was awful for big businesses. The anti-Obamacare crusade led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and House tea partiers kept the government closed for 16 days and won zero policy victories for the GOP, but their showboating robbed billions from the economy. Because of the shutdown, Standard & Poor's revised its economic growth projections for the last quarter of 2013 downward from 3 percent to 2.4. percent. The harm to the economy would have gone from unpleasant to catastrophic if Cruz and his partners in crime had their way and let the government hit the debt ceiling. 

Throughout the shutdown, corporations begged the Republicans to step back from the ledge and keep the government funded. Their protestations fell on the deaf ears of new members of Congress who feel less beholden to corporate donors than past generations of Republicans. For a moment after the shutdown was resolved, it seemed like big business finally had enough with the GOP's hardliners. Moderate GOP candidates jumped into primary challenges against tea partiers with the blessing of corporate donors immediately after the shutdown.

The dissatisfaction of Big Business didn't last all that long. Reuters analyzed donations from the biggest business political action committees and found that they are still funneling money to the Tea Partiers who wanted the government to crash and burn last month. Since Congress voted to re-open the government on October 16, the eight biggest corporate PACs have donated nearly $85,000 to the 162 Republicans who voted against the deal to raise the debt ceiling and end the shutdown. For context, those same PACs have also given $246,000 to the 366 members of Congress who voted for the deal. Reuters found that some companies, such as Honeywell, were still donating to hardline Republicans even while they were railing against the government shutdown.

Even if corporate America despise the tea partier's methods, it turns out business still cares more about lower marginal tax rates and lax regulation than a functioning government.

Republicans—Yes, Republicans—Are Joining the Battle Against Big Money Politics

| Mon Nov. 25, 2013 10:32 AM EST
Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.), the author of a new campaign finance reform bill.

After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee published a 100-page autopsy (PDF) nobly titled the "Growth and Opportunity Project" that pointed the supposed way forward for the humbled Grand Old Party. Regarding the dark-money-driven, super-PAC-mad politics of today, the document left little doubt about the party's view: Let the money flow. The RNC called for ending the ban on "soft money" (the 1990s-era equivalent of dark money that fueled the Clinton White House scandals), raising contribution limits, removing the aggregate limit on how much overall money a donor can give in one cycle, and further deregulating money in politics at the state and federal levels.

But as the cost of winning an election increases, fundraising swallows up more of a congressman's time, and candidates scramble to acquire their own super-PACs, several House Republicans are bucking their own party and demanding real reform.

Last week, Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) introduced a bill called the Citizens Involvement in Campaigns, or CIVIC Act, with the hope of spurring more small-dollar donations to political campaigns by reviving a pair of tax incentives. Petri's bill would offer small donors two options. They could receive a tax credit of up to $200 (or up to $400 on a joint tax return) for donations made to a campaign or national political party. Or that same donor could claim a tax deduction of up to $600 (up to $1,200 for a joint return) for political donations. The intent is obvious: entice many more small donations to candidates.

When he unveiled his bill, Petri lamented both the cost of running for federal office and the growing clout of very wealthy donors in the political process. "Campaigns are becoming more and more expensive with no signs of slowing down," he said. "And most would agree that the ideal way to finance a campaign is through a broad base of donors. Unfortunately, most Americans aren't in the position to donate hundreds or thousands of dollars—but they want to get involved. We should be encouraging political participation."

Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans have ever made a political donation, polls show. And for all of President Barack Obama's success in reeling in scads of small donations (aside large contributions), politics remains dominated by big money. In last year's elections, more than 60 percent of all donations came from donors giving more than $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As for super-PACs and nonprofits, well, those are the playgrounds of millionaires and billionaires on both sides of the aisle.

Another House Republican, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), recently introduced a bill of his own aiming to reform another cash-crazy part of congressional politics: so-called leadership PACs. Leadership PACs are different from your typical campaign committee. Instead of raising money for a politician's own reelection bid, leadership PACs, which sprung up in the 1990s, allow members to raise money for distributing to their colleagues' reelection campaigns. By spreading money around to your pals, a lawmaker can earn some goodwill and climb the ranks within his or her own party. Thanks to a loophole in the law, however, lawmakers often use their leadership PACs to pay for golf outings, tickets to NFL games, and other swanky junkets that politicians can't pay for with their traditional campaign war chest.

Harris' bill would close that loophole. "Public opinion of Congress is already low enough," he said. "By banning the personal use of political committee funds, we can help improve the public trust in Congress."

Let's face it: In the Republican-controlled House, these bills stand little chance of passage. (The slew of Democrat-introduced reform bills, which tend to be more extensive and comprehensive, are also doomed.) Yet the fact that Republicans are joining the reform effort matters. In the past, when campaign spending has spiraled out of control and resulted in headline-grabbing political scandals, Congress' instinct has been to look for the reforms already on the table and to pass one or some of those reforms in the scandal's aftermath. And if the bills have a bipartisan imprimatur, all the better.

So Petri's and Harris' proposals may be DOA. But should another money-and-politics scandal strike, these bills will be ready to go—and they'll have Democrats and Republicans ready to jump onboard.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Twitter Just Made It Harder for the NSA to Read Your Private Tweets

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 6:56 PM EST
Twitter

On Friday, Twitter announced that it has enabled a new form of Internet security, already used by Google and Facebook, that makes it considerably more difficult for the NSA to read private messages. With this new security, there isn't one pair of master "keys" that unlock an entire website's encryption, instead, new keys are produced and destroyed for each login session.

"If an adversary is currently recording all Twitter users’ encrypted traffic, and they later crack or steal Twitter’s private keys, they should not be able to use those keys to decrypt the recorded traffic," Twitter wrote on its blog. To put that into simple terms, that would be like giving a new set of keys to each visitor coming to your house, melting them down after the person gets inside, and changing the locks. The method is called "Perfect Forward Secrecy," and while it has been around for at least two decades, it hasn't been picked up by tech giants until recently, following the allegations of vast government surveillance by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden

This security system specifically takes aim at the NSA's alleged practice of scooping up the encrypted communications of millions of users—either through hacking or top-secret national security orders—and then storing them until the agency is able to get a company's keys to access all of the data.​ While Twitter was never implicated in the NSA's vast online surveillance program, PRISM, there is still quite a bit of private information the US government could be interested in on Twitter for its counterterrorism efforts—direct messages, time zones, user passwords, and email addresses, for example. 

To get a peek at how this security might play out in real life, look no further than the legal battle the Department of Justice is currently waging against Lavabit, an alternative email provider that was reportedly used by Snowden. When the founder of Lavabit refused to give up its master encryption keys to the US government—because it would have had access to thousands of email accounts—the company was held in contempt of court. If Lavabit had installed Perfect Forward Secrecy, however, the company wouldn't have been able to give up its master keys, since they would have already been destroyed. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet privacy group, supports Perfect Forward Secrecy, arguing that "against the known threat of "upstream" data collection, supporting perfect forward secrecy is an essential step." However, as EFF notes, this doesn't necessarily make a company completely NSA-proof, since it doesn't protect data that's stored on a server (and NSA still managed to hack into Google, by breaking into its front end server, according to documents in the Washington Post).

The New York Times says that this new security will slow traffic down by about 150 milliseconds in the United States, and Tweeters are unlikely to notice. But it will "make the National Security Agency’s job much, much harder," the paper said. 

Will Fake Sugars Kill You?

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 1:26 PM EST

Sugar kills. The delicious white crack has been linked to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's. So what's a person with a sweet tooth to do? Artificial sweeteners are a tempting choice, since they don't have calories or rot your teeth, and they're recommended for people with diabetes. But some of the fake stuff comes with its own potential health risks: Links to cancer in animal studies, reported side effects of dizziness and headaches, and exacerbated stomach problems, to name a few. And in one case, an artificial sweetener that the FDA had proposed banning was kept on the shelves after an aggressive advertising campaign from the pro-sweetener lobbying industry. Peggy Ballman, a spokesperson for Splenda, tells Mother Jones that, "We always encourage people to make informed choices by reviewing the credible research available." So without further ado, here's everything you need to know about the safety of your favorite fake sugar. 

1. Stevia (Brand names: Truvia, PureVia) 

Truvia.com

What is it? Stevia is short for Stevia Rebaudiana, a plant from the Chrysanthemum family that grows in parts of Brazil and Paraguay. The compound that makes the Stevia sugar is extracted from the leaves. It's used in the EU, East Asia, Russia, Mexico, Israel, and many South American countries, and is about 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

When did the FDA approve it? In the 1990s, the FDA rejected Stevia as a food ingredient after research linked it to reproductive problems and possible genetic mutations in rats. In 2008, the FDA approved a specific formula of pure Stevia—Rebaudioside A. PureVia and Truvia both contain the Reb A version of Stevia, which is FDA-approved. The FDA recommended daily dosage is no more than 1.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, for healthy adults. You'd need to have at least 29 Truvia packets a day to exceed that. 

What do the experts say? If your Stevia isn't made from Reb A—like, for example, the whole-leaf extract version that's sold at natural food markets and labeled as a "dietary supplement"—it hasn't been vetted for safety by the FDA. For Truvia and PureVia, the FDA concluded with "reasonable certainty that Reb A is not harmful under its intended conditions of use" based on studies it looked at concerning reproductive, blood pressure, and toxicity effects. Although scientific studies in the 1960s and 1980s found that Stevia-derived products decreased fertility in female rats and potentially led to mutations, the FDA concluded that those problems didn't apply to Reb A, based on additional research. (The World Health Organization has also determined that Reb A has no cancer link.) The FDA did note that one form of Stevia was deadly to rats at a dose of 15,000 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, but that's an enormous amount of Stevia. Atalanta Rafferty, a spokesperson for Truvia, says that "A panel of independent experts reviewed a dossier of all available toxicity and safety information relevant to Truvia stevia leaf extract, and concluded that Truvia stevia leaf extract is safe." Pura Via says on its website that, "An extensive library of more than 85 studies exists for Reb A and other components of the stevia plant which supports Reb A’s use in tabletop sweeteners." 

2. Aspartame (Brand Names: Equal, NutraSweet)

Soap.com

What is it? Aspartame is made up of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and methanol, all of which are found in common foods. It's about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

When did the FDA approve it? It was approved in the United States for limited use in 1974. But if you're taking more than 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight a day, you're exceeding the FDA's recommended daily limit. (A 165-pound person would have to be drinking more than 20 cans of diet coke to exceed that.)

What do the experts say? Aspartame has been controversial for decades. In 1987, the Government Accountability Office investigated the FDA after the sweetener was approved. It determined that the "FDA adequately followed its food additive approval process," but noted that 12 of the 69 scientists interviewed by GAO expressed "major concerns" about aspartame's safety.

In 2006, cancer researchers in Bologna, Italy, released the results of a $1 million, seven-year study of the use of aspartame in rats. The team found that, at a dosage equivalent to a 150-pound person drinking at least four 20-oz bottles of diet soda daily, the sweetener caused cancer in the animals. But the FDA shot down the study, noting that the researchers wouldn't give them all of their information, and found major shortcomings in the data that was available. According to the FDA, five other cancer studies found that the sweetener was safe. The American Cancer Society says on its website, "Aside from the possible effects in people with phenylketonuria [a rare genetic disorder], there are no health problems that have been consistently linked to aspartame use​" but adds that "research continues." The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends that Americans avoid it on the basis that the independent studies have found that consumption of aspartame causes cancer in rodents (although again, not in humans), and it's been anecdotally linked to other health issues. In a 2002 FDA report, reported aspartame side effects included nausea, heart palpitations, headaches and depression, among other things. NutraSweet and Equal both say that its products are very safe. "Aspartame offers one simple step in helping people move closer to achieving a more healthful diet," notes NutraSweet's website. 

3. Sucralose (Brand Name: Splenda)

Splenda

What is it? Sucralose is a chemical that's produced by chemically reacting sugar with chlorine. It's about 600 times sweeter than sugar. 

When did the FDA approve it? Sucralose was approved in 1998. The FDA recommended daily dose is 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. 

What do the experts say? There have been more than 110 studies on sucralose over a 20 year period, and the American Cancer Society says the studies have shown "no evidence that these sweeteners cause cancer or pose any other threat to human health." The Center for Science in the Public Interest says that "sucralose is safer than aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame-K, and cyclamate," but notes that people with inflammatory bowel disease and other gastrointestinal issues should try avoiding the substance, since it's been known to aggravate symptoms (Peggy Ballman, a spokesperson for Splenda, says that this finding "is not consistent with the extensive data base on sucralose and its more than 20 years of safe use.") In 2008, Duke University researchers also found that Splenda can harm intestinal bacteria, although that study was funded by a pro-sugar lobbying group, and Ballman says that "no regulatory agency has acted on the results from that study." In 2012, the same controversial research team in Italy that busted aspartame announced that sucralose increases cancer in rats, but the results of the study have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. "In contrast, more than 110 studies [have] proven the safety of Sucralose. Worldwide authorities, including the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada, and the World Health Organization, have reviewed these studies and confirm that results show no link between sucralose and any form of cancer," says Ballman. 

4. Saccharin (Brand names: Sweet'N Low)

Amazon

What is it? Saccharin is made from benzoic sulfilimine, a chemical compound that was accidentally discovered in 1879 when a professor, Constantin Fahlberg, was analyzing coal tar at Johns Hopkins University. He spilled saccharin on his hands and later noticed that the bread he was eating at dinner tasted sweeter, according to Elmhurst College. Saccharin is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. 

When did the FDA approve it? Saccharin has been around since before the FDA governed food additives, but the FDA has put the acceptable daily limit at 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. A 150 pound person could consume 340 milligrams of saccharin per day, which is equal to more than 48 12-ounce servings of Diet Wild Cherry Fanta. 

What do experts say? In the 1970s, tests showed that high doses of saccharin caused bladder stones in rats, which could lead to bladder cancer, particularly in male rats. Studies after that found similar results. Initially, the FDA proposed banning the substance—but on Congress' recommendation in November 1977, the FDA kept it on shelves, with warning labels that the sweetener was found to be a carcinogen. According to Christopher Foreman, Jr.​, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a number of congress members fought against actually banning the substance, pushed along by the Calorie Control Council, a sugar substitute and diet-food lobbying group, which "launched an advertising campaign ridiculing both the FDA and the studies on which it based its decision." In 1991, the FDA finally stopped proposing to ban the sweetener, and in 1996, the warning labels were done away with. In 2000, the US National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens finally removed saccharin from its list. According to the National Cancer Institute, "the bladder tumors seen in rats are due to a mechanism not relevant to humans [and] there is no clear evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans." Stephanie Meyering, a spokesperson for Sweet'N Low, says, "Saccharin is the one of the most thoroughly tested food ingredients in the world and it has the longest safe human consumption record among non-nutritive sweeteners." The Center for Science in the Public Interest isn't convinced and puts it on its list of substances to "avoid." 

This Woman State GOP Chair Is Paid $20K Less Than Her Male Predecessor

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 12:53 PM EST

A woman scorned.

Susan Hutchinson, the chair of the Washington state Republican party, earns $20,000 less than her male predecessor, and her request for equal pay has kicked off an ugly internal spat among state GOP leaders.

The Washington GOP executive committee voted to cut the party chair's salary from $95,000 to about $75,000 in August, shortly before Hutchinson was elected to the position. Officials cited a budget shortfall. But in an internal memo to the committee, which the Seattle Times uncovered earlier this week, Hutchinson said that the vote violated the party's bylaws and could be seen as "discriminatory and vindictive."

"The pay cut defies the concept of equal pay for equal work, playing into the 'war on women' narrative against Republicans," she wrote.

Last week, prior to sending the memo, Hutchinson met with the committee and asked them to raise her salary to match that of her predecessor, Kirby Wilbur. But, according to the memo, her request was denied and it "soured" the committee's mood.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 22, 2013

Fri Nov. 22, 2013 11:03 AM EST

Two U.S. Army UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters assigned to the 1st Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Tigershark fly over Logar province, Afghanistan, during a personnel movement mission Nov. 11, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Capt. Peter Smedberg/Released.