Mojo - February 2014

Watch Elizabeth Warren Slam the GOP for Blocking Unemployment Benefits

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 11:52 AM EST

On Monday evening, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) denounced GOP lawmakers for blocking an extension of federal unemployment insurance, which expired at the end of last year, and called on Congress to act immediately on behalf of the roughly 1.6 million Americans who depend on the benefits.

"Unemployment insurance is a critical lifeline for people who are trying their hardest and need a little help—a recognition that Wall Street and Washington caused the financial crisis, but Main Street is still paying the price," Warren said in a speech on the Senate floor.

She added that it's hypocritical for Republicans to push for an extension of a package of mostly corporate tax breaks called "tax extenders" without offsetting the cost, but are demanding that aid for the unemployed be paid for. "Republicans line up to protect billions in tax breaks and subsidies for big corporations with armies of lobbyists," the senator said, "but they can’t find a way to help struggling families trying get back on their feet."

Each year since the onset of the recession in 2008, Congress has re-authorized federal emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, which kick in after state unemployment benefits run out—usually after 26 weeks. The number of extra weeks of federal unemployment insurance has varied over the years, but last stood at 47 weeks.

The long-term unemployment rate—the percentage of those without a job for 27 weeks or longer—remains at record high levels, but Republicans in the House and Senate don't want to extend federal unemployment benefits unless they are offset by savings elsewhere. A Senate plan to renew the benefits failed a couple of weeks ago, because Republicans said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wouldn't allow them to amend the legislation to their liking. The upper chamber is now working on a new proposal that would pay for the $6-billion extension by temporarily increasing taxes on employers. But even if the Senate passes the measure, it is unclear whether House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will bring the bill up for a vote, according to Democratic House aides.

UPDATE, February 6, 2014: On Thursday, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered a Democratic bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for 3 months. The vote was 55-42, but Democrats needed 60 votes to advance the legislation.

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Mormon Makeover: Missionaries Scrapping the Suits, Door-Knocking

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 11:22 AM EST

Mormon missionaries are universally recognizable worldwide. They're the guys in the starched white shirts, dark ties, and name tags often seen riding bikes through neighborhoods from DC to Monrovia, knocking on doors and trying to convert people just sitting down to dinner. The uniform is so iconic it was easily mocked in the Broadway show Book of Mormon. But the church recently announced a shocking new development: Some of its missionaries are ditching the suits, and with them, the door-knocking, in recognition that having total strangers bug people at home unannounced is perhaps not the best way to win new followers.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the missionaries are going to try some other tactics—like email spam. The church announced over the summer that it would allow missionaries to better utilize social media and the internet to find potential converts. In June, one of the Latter Day Saints' top leaders, 90-year-old church apostle L. Tom Perry, said, "The world has changed. The nature of missionary work must change if the Lord will accomplish his work."

More interesting, even before that announcement, Mormon missions in California's Bay Area had already given up "tracting," or knocking on doors and trying to convert people, in favor of sending young people out to try to do more practical good in the world. They have been requiring missionaries, who generally serve a two-year stint, to perform "two hours of nonproselytizing community service every day, five days a week—up from the normal four or so hours a week," reports the Tribune, noting that the missionaries have, as a result, partnered with community organizations to help poor kids, clean up trash from homeless camps, read to immigrants, clear invasive plants, and volunteer to keep score at local baseball games. There are some limits to their service: no power tools, no ladders with more than four steps, and they have to keep the name tags. But according to the Tribune, the missionaries have suddenly become very popular among organizations desperately in need of volunteers between 3 and 5 p.m. The effort has been so successful that it's expanding to other states.

The change is fairly striking for a church with a long history of being a somewhat closed society best known for its onetime practice of polygamy. In 2008, Gary Lawrence, a Mormon pollster, published a book full of data showing the extent to which Americans disliked and feared Mormons, whose favorability ratings were on par with Muslims, who ranked dead last on the list of American religions. But it's been clear that the LDS church has been making a concerted effort to improve its public image, particularly in the run-up to the 2012 election when Mitt Romney was the GOP presidential nominee. The church has been trying, fitfully, to be more tolerant of lesbians and gays, particularly the Mormon ones. And the move to allow missionaries to ditch dark ties in favor of trash-picker reflector vests and jeans seems an inspired move that could win favor with evangelical and other Christian groups that have long made traditional community service work central to their faith but who also don't consider Mormons to be true Christians.

As with the church's evolution on gays, the movement of Mormon missionaries to embed with the poor unwashed masses may have some unexpected consequences. Mormons are among the nation's most reliable Republicans. Sending young, impressionable youth out into the trenches to work side by side with the 47 percent might not shake their faith in the church, but it might leave them questioning their party.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 4, 2014

Tue Feb. 4, 2014 10:13 AM EST

U.S. Marines with Bravo and Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, conduct rocket range outside of Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 31, 2014. The Marines used the range to keep their knowledge sharp on the different weapon systems they use. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Eric S. Wilterdink/Released)

6 Unanswered Questions About Obama's Drone War

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 6:01 AM EST

Update: Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Obama administration officials say drone strikes in Pakistan have been "sharply curtailed" at the request of the Pakistani government while it pursues peace talks with the Taliban. The administration says it will still carry out strikes against senior al-Qaeda targets if they pose a direct, imminent threat to Americans. Meanwhile, drone strikes have continued in Yemen, where a missile attack on a wedding convoy killed at least 11 people in December.

On January 23, 2009, President Barack Obama authorized his first drone strike. The attack, launched against a compound in northwestern Pakistan, killed between 7 and 15 people—but missed the Taliban hideout the Central Intelligence Agency thought it was targeting. Over the next five years, the CIA carried out more than 390 known drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. (The agency carried out 51 drone strikes between 2004 and 2009, during the Bush administration.)

Obama made a brief reference to the drone campaign in last week's State of the Union address, assuring Congress that "I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones." This wasn't the first time the president had acknowledged the need for a clear drone policy. Last May, Obama remarked at the National Defense University, "This new technology raises profound questions—about who is targeted, and why." Yet the answers the administration has provided to these profound questions and the prudent limits it has put in place remain vague.

Here are six major questions about the US drone program that remain unanswered a decade after the first strike:

1. Who's being targeted?
A declassified summary of the Presidential Policy Guidance states that "the policy of the United States is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture." If capture is feasible, "lethal force will not be proposed or pursued as punishment or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect in a civilian court or a military commission." According to the Obama administration, lethal force can only be used against "Al Qaeda and its associated forces." Yet as an investigation by McClatchy DC reported last year, the administration has not publicly identified any Al Qaeda-associated forces beyond the Afghan Taliban. McClatchy's review of top secret US intelligence reports covering most drone strikes in Pakistan between 2006 and 2008 and between 2010 and 2011 showed that "drone operators weren't always certain who they were killing despite the administration's guarantees of the accuracy of the CIA's targeting intelligence." More than half of the 482 people killed between September 2010 and September 2011 were not senior Al Qaeda leaders but were "assessed" as Afghan, Pakistani, or unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top Al Qaeda leaders in those months.

2. What constitutes an "imminent threat"?
The Presidential Policy Guidance outlines a number of conditions for the use of lethal force, including "continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons." According to an undated leaked Department of Justice white paper, defining a target as an "imminent threat" does not "require clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future." The ongoing threat of Al Qaeda plots and attacks, the paper explains, "demands a broader concept of imminence." The DOJ memo argues that the United States should be able "to act in self-defense in circumstances where there is evidence of further imminent attacks by terrorist groups even if there is no specific evidence of where such an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack." This broad legal definition of "imminent threat" appears to allow the Obama administration to strike at any time.

3. What about signature strikes?
Apart from a kill list of targets, a key feature of the drone war has been the use of signature strikes—presidentially-approved attacks on targets displaying a terrorist "signature," such as "training camps and suspicious compounds." The administration has refused to acknowledge the use of these signature strikes or discuss their legal justifications. The CIA does not disclose what criteria it uses to identify a terrorist signature. This particularly challenging to do in the northwest of Pakistan, where militants and civilians may dress alike, and where openly carrying weapons is customary.

4. Does Congress really know what's going on?
The House and Senate intelligence committees oversee the drone program, however their ability to set limits is severely constrained because the program is classified. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Hill last February, "Right now it is very hard [to oversee] because it is regarded as a covert activity, so when you see something that is wrong and you ask to be able to address it, you are told no." The administration has repeatedly denied requests for further information from lawmakers. For instance, since 2011, 21 requests by members of Congress to access Office of Legal Counsel memoranda that provide the legal basis for targeted killings have been denied. The White House also refused to provide witnesses representing the administration at recent Senate and House Judiciary Committee hearings on targeted killings.

5. How are civilian casualties avoided—and counted?
The Presidential Policy Guidance states that lethal strikes may be carried out only with "near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed." However, the Obama administration counts all military-age males killed by drones as militants. That explains why official counts of civilian deaths vary widely from independent counts. While in Sen. Feinstein stated last year that annual civilian casualties from drones fall in the "single digits", the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that total civilian casualties since 2004 in Pakistan alone have ranged from 416 to 951.

6. How does the administration justify the targeting of American citizens?
In September 2011, Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. A secret Department of Justice memo provided the legal justification for targeting an American citizen. The memo, obtained by NBC News, found that it is lawful to use lethal force in a foreign country against an American citizen who is a senior operational leader of Al-Qaeda or an associated force if a high-level official has determined that the individual poses an imminent threat, capture is infeasible, and the operation would be consistent the laws of war.

The memo notes that assassinations of American citizens in this manner are justified as long as civilian casualties aren't "excessive." Al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also an American, was killed in a separate strike two weeks later. When asked about the legal justification for his death, Obama advisor and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki "should have (had) a far more responsible father."

Meet the GOP Congressional Candidate Who Called Hillary Clinton the "Antichrist"

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 6:00 AM EST

The biblical devil-beast who will assemble armies to fight the Lord on the final day of the world, according to congressional hopeful Ryan Zinke.

Montana GOP congressional candidate Ryan Zinke made waves last week when, speaking at a campaign stop, he called Hillary Clinton the "Antichrist."*

But before Zinke was in the news for equating the former secretary of state to the Great Deceiver, Mother Jones flagged Zinke for the dubious campaign finance methods surrounding his campaign for Montana's only seat in the House of Representatives.

Zinke, 53, is a former Navy SEAL, a fact he advertised loudly in 2012 when he launched a super-PAC—a political action committee that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising. The super-PAC, "Special Operations for America," (SOFA) raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars in 2012 to support the election of Mitt Romney. And although SOFA didn't succeed in putting Romney in the White House, the election allowed it to gather a substantial list of small-dollar donors and continue raising money after the 2012 election ended. At the end of 2013, the group had $255,904 on hand.

By that point, Zinke was no longer involved with the super-PAC's leadership—he had resigned on September 30 and announced three weeks later that he was running for Congress. Soon, the super-PAC Zinke started became his biggest cheerleader. Throughout last fall, SOFA's website, Facebook page, and Twitter account all urged donors to give to Zinke's congressional exploratory committee, and then, his congressional campaign. In January 2014 alone, SOFA spent almost $60,000 supporting Zinke's campaign. (The last time the seat was up for grabs, in 2012, outside spending totaled $240,000.)

If this strategy, which is entirely legal, sounds familiar, that's because it was pioneered by Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert in 2012. As Mother Jones noted in November:

In January 2012, Colbert summoned Daily Show host Jon Stewart and Trevor Potter, a campaign finance expert, to the Colbert Report studio for a surprise announcement: Colbert was handing control of his super-PAC [to] Stewart. The two comedians signed a two-page document, then held hands and locked eyes while Potter bellowed the words, "Colbert super-PAC transfer, activate!" Colbert then announced that he was forming an exploratory committee to weigh a run for "President of the United States of South Carolina." Stewart, meanwhile, renamed Colbert's super-PAC the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC, and promised Colbert he would run ads to support Colbert's presidential bid.

The aim of Colbert's stunt was to show that campaign finance laws are so flimsy that it was legal, in theory, for a politician to start a super-PAC, raise unlimited heaps of cash from big-money donors for that super-PAC, quit the super-PAC, and then run for federal office supported by that super-PAC.

Zinke's campaign, in other words, was pretty shameless before he called Clinton the "Antichrist." And pretty well-funded, too.


*Zinke made the Antichrist comment, which was first reported by the Montana website Bigfork Eagle, after telling his audience, "We need to focus on the real enemy." He did not reply to a request for comment from Mother Jones. When Aaron Flint of Northern Broadcasting asked Zinke about the comment, Zinke said, "I've already been put on the Obama campaign enemy list—and they're just gonna attack. That's all these people do is attack, attack, attack."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 3, 2014

Mon Feb. 3, 2014 9:50 AM EST

Soldiers from 4th Battalion, 227th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Cavalry, now under the 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade, load an AH-64 Apache with 2.75 inch rockets during a Forward Arming and Refueling Point exercise with A Company, 642nd Aviation Support Battalion, 42nd CAB, on Jan. 15, 2014, near Camp Buehring, Kuwait. The 42nd CAB, New York Army National Guard, is based in Kuwait and has assumed command of Army aviation assets in the region as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. (N.Y. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Harley Jelis/Released)