Political MoJo

BREAKING: US to Normalize Relations With Cuba

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 11:16 AM EST

Wow:

The United States and Cuba will begin talks to normalize relations, including opening an embassy in Havana and putting to rest one most enduring Cold War standoffs, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

The landmark initiatives appeared to be set in motion by a surprise prisoner swap that freed American contractor Alan Gross after five years in custody in Cuba. In exchange, the United States would release three Cubans jailed for espionage, the Associated Press reported.

President Obama is scheduled to speak at noon. Watch below for his press conference: 

Update: The White House just released a fact sheet outlining the policy changes with Cuba:

 

 

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This New Report Explains Exactly How the Afghan Economy Will Fall Apart

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 10:16 AM EST
A staff sergeant from the Alaskan National Guard stands guard as workers build a bazaar in Kandahar

When then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toured a reconstruction center in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2004, he was gushing with optimism. "It is so clear that the Afghan people are winning the struggle to rebuild this nation," he said. That hope is now basically dead. Last week, the Special Investigator General for the Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a report that explains exactly how Afghanistan's economy will fall apart in the next few years. The reasons are easy to understand: Western powers came to the country and built a lot of infrastructure. Now coalition forces are leaving, and Afghanistan has to figure out how to maintain everything the westerners built. With foreign funds drying up, that'll be a tall order.

In 2013, the Afghan government collected $2 billion internally, but it spent $5.4 billion. "In other words," SIGAR notes, "domestic revenue covered only 37% of the total budget." The 2014 budget of $7.6 billion plans for even more spending than last year. But Afghanistan's government expects to pay for just $2.8 billion of that with its own money.

Afghanistan, like any other debt-burdened nation in the world, can make the imbalance work as long as it has another, external source of funds. But donors are starting to temper their support, and the security, social services, and infrastructure maintenance costs are increasing rapidly. (You can read Mother Jones' list of Afghan infrastructure disasters from last year here.)

More money will be hard for Afghanistan to come by on its own. There's some mineral development in the works, but it'll be decades before it reaches its true potential, SIGAR says. Licit exports only amounted to a $376 million, or about $8.20 per person, in 2012, according to the CIA World Factbook. (The CIA names "small-scale production of bricks" and "handwoven carpets" among the country's top industries.)

Afghanistan's one lucrative export is illegal everywhere. Last year, Afghanistan's opium industry was worth an estimated $3 billion, despite the billions the US has spent trying to stamp it out.

"Without donor contributions," SIGAR argues, "the Afghan government will not be able to meet most of its operating or development expenditures." Citing an IMF report, SIGAR says the gap between domestic revenue and expenses will average $7.7 billion every year through 2018. 

So who's fault is this mess? SIGAR lays much of the blame at the feet of the United States and other countries that built Afghanistan's infrastructure in the first place. "Each new development project that the United States and other international donors fund increases the country's O&M [operation and maintenance] costs, adding pressure to Afghanistan's operating budget," the report states, adding that the US and other other governments should have had a plan for how to pay for their projects' maintenance, knowing they'd eventually have to leave. 

"Much of the more than $104 billion the United States has committed to reconstruction projects and programs risks being wasted," the report adds, "because the Afghans cannot sustain the investment without massive continued donor support."

Pakistani Taliban Kills At Least 145 People—Including More Than 100 Kids—in Savage School Massacre

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 10:43 AM EST

The Pakistani Taliban is claiming responsibility for a deadly attack inside a military-run school in Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, on Tuesday, that has left as many as 145 dead, more than 100 of them students. The BBC has described the attack as the deadliest massacre ever carried out by the Taliban in Pakistan.

Gunmen entered Army Public School and Degree College by scaling the walls of the campus' main building. The attackers held students hostage for more than eight hours, as they moved systematically from classroom to classroom firing at children. Reuters quoted a local hospital as saying that the dead and injured were aged between 10 and 20 years old.

Six gunmen were reportedly killed in the gunfire. A spokesperson for the  terrorist group says the massacre was a retaliation against earlier Pakistani military activities against militants in North Waziristan.

"We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females," Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani said, according to Reuters. "We want them to feel the pain." 

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has traveled to Peshawar, has called for three days of national mourning.

Will Private Prisons Finally Be Subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 6:45 AM EST

Anyone can use the federal Freedom of Information Act to request records about prisons owned and operated by the government. Information about prisoner demographics, violent incidents, and prison budgets are all obtainable. But privately run facilities—even those that hold federal prisoners—are exempt from the law. Last week, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced legislation to change that. On December 10, she introduced a new bill, the Private Prison Information Act. If passed, it would force any nonfederal prison holding federal prisoners to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2013, 41,200 federal convicts—19 percent of the entire federal prison population—were housed in private facilities. That year, Corrections Corporation of America, the largest prison contractor in the United States, collected more than $584 million from the federal government.

Passing Lee's bill will be difficult, if not impossible. From 2005 to 2012, Democrats (including Lee) introduced five separate bills that aimed to apply FOIA to private prisons. All of them failed. With the GOP—which has been generally friendly to the prison industry—controlling both houses of Congress beginning next year, the new bill will likely meet a similar end.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of prisoners are locked up in facilities that are legally immune to open-records requests. From 2000 to 2009, the number of people locked up in private facilities at every level of the justice system increased 37 percent, to 129,336, according to the Department of Justice. By the end of 2013, 133,000 inmates—about 8 percent of the entire US prison population—were housed in private prisons. The figure is on par with the entire California prison population at that time.

The Federal War on Medical Marijuana Is Over

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EST
Steven D'Angelo's Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, was a target of the federal government.

Good news for medical pot smokers: The $1.1 trillion federal spending bill approved by the Senate on Saturday has effectively ended the longstanding federal war on medical marijuana. An amendment to the bill blocks the Department of Justice from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws.

"Patients will have access to the care legal in their state without fear of federal prosecution," Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a supporter of the rider known as the Hinchey-Rohrbacher amendment, said in a statement. "And our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on fighting actual crimes and not wasted going after patients."

The DOJ's earlier pledge not to interfere with state pot laws left it plenty of wiggle room.

The Department of Justice last year pledged not to interfere with the implementation of state pot laws, but the agency's truce left it with plenty of room to change its mind. Earlier this year, for instance, the DOJ accused the Kettle Falls Five, a family in Washington State, of growing 68 marijuana plants on their farm in Eastern Washington, where pot is legal. Members of the family face up to 10 years in jail—or at least, they did; the amendment may now stop their prosecution.

More broadly, the change provides some added peace of mind for pot patients in California, where the DOJ's pledge appeared not to apply. The Golden State's 1996 medical pot law, the first in the nation, has long been criticized by the DOJ as too permissive and decentralized.

Medical marijuana activists hailed the amendment's passage as a landmark moment for patients' rights. "By approving this measure, Congress is siding with the vast majority of Americans who are calling for change in how we enforce our federal marijuana laws," said Mike Liszewski, Government Affairs Director for Americans for Safe Access.

The CRomnibus spending bill wasn't a universal victory of marijuana advocates, however. Another rider aims to prevent the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana; it prohibits federal funds being "used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance." But Reason's Jacob Sullum notes that the rider may be moot because DC's pot law has already been "enacted" by voters—it passed at the polls in November by a 2-to-1 margin.

Whatever the outcome in DC, the appropriations bill is an undisputed win for pot smokers. As Slate's Josh Voorhes points out, "the District is home to roughly 640,000 people; California, one of 23 states were medical pot is legal, is home to more than 38 million." In short, Congress has done a bit of temporary weed whacking in its backyard, but it's acknowledging that stopping the repeal of pot prohibitions by the states is all but impossible.

Cheney on Torture: Lying or Ignorant?

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 2:28 PM EST

On Sunday, days after the release of the Senate torture report, former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press to defend the Bush-Cheney administration's use of harsh interrogation practices and to deny that these methods were torture. It was a typical no-retreat/no-surrender performance by Cheney. Asked by host Chuck Todd to define torture, Cheney repeatedly said torture was what happened on 9/11: "What the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans." That is, he defined torture as an act of mass violence that targets civilians.

This was a confusing, nonlogical talking point that Cheney gripped tightly. Yet on the specific matter of waterboarding—which he defended—Cheney simply resorted to false statements. He insisted that waterboarding "was not torture." Todd asked him, "When you say waterboarding is not torture, then why did we prosecute Japanese soldiers in World War II for waterboarding?"

Cheney replied:

For a lot of stuff. Not for waterboarding. They did an awful lot of other stuff…To draw some kind of moral equivalent between waterboarding judged by our Justice Department not to be torture and what the Japanese did with the Bataan Death March and the slaughter of thousands of Americans, with the rape of Nanking and all of the other crimes they committed, that's an outrage. It's a really cheap shot, Chuck, to even try to draw a parallel between the Japanese who were prosecuted for war crimes after World War II and what we did with waterboarding three individuals—

See what he did there? He denied the basis of Todd's question and then tried to make it seem silly: You can't equate what our guys did to the worst mass war crimes of World War II!

But Cheney was wrong. In 1947, the United States did charge a Japanese interrogator named Yukio Asano with war crimes, including waterboarding. In fact, waterboarding was one of the key crimes of which he was accused. Here's a portion of the indictment:

Charge: That between 1 April, 1943 and 31 August, 1944, at Fukoka Prisoner of War Branch Camp Number 3, Kyushu, Japan, the accused Yukio Asano, then a civilian serving as an interpreter with the Armed Forces of Japan, a nation then at war with the United States of America and its Allies, did violate the Laws and Customs of War.

Specification 1: That in or about July or August, 1943, the accused Yukio Asano, did willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture Morris O. Killough, an American Prisoner of War, by beating and kicking him; by fastening him on a stretcher and pouring water up his nostrils.

Other parts of the indictment also refer to other times Asano engaged in waterboarding. He was not indicted for the Bataan Death March. He was accused of a specific war crime: waterboarding.

Does Cheney know this? If he did, it probably wouldn't matter. During his interview, the ever-unrepentant Cheney refused to acknowledge any problems with the CIA detention and interrogation program that he and George W. Bush approved. He showed no concern when Todd noted that up to 25 percent of the detainees—some of whom were tortured—were wrongly held. Cheney insisted the extreme interrogation practices "absolutely did work," though the Senate report offers numerous examples of instances when torture did not yield pivotal information and did not contribute to thwarting attacks. Cheney asserted that waterboarding in the defense of the United States is no vice. And he kept thrashing at a straw man, accusing naive torture critics of equating these interrogation methods with the bloody deeds of Al Qaeda.

Asked about a passage of the report that clearly notes that the CIA provided Cheney with false information—that the use of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques helped the CIA stop a dirty bomb attack planned for Washington, DC—Cheney insisted that the implication that the CIA misled him "is just wrong." But he didn't say how he knew that. After all, did Cheney review the intelligence himself? (He didn't even read the full torture report—or the 528-page executive summary that was released.) And if the CIA had provided him inaccurate information touting the use of these interrogation techniques, how would he know that?

Given that the CIA screwed up regarding WMD in Iraq, Todd asked Cheney, why are you so confident that CIA officials were telling you the truth? Cheney had only this to say: I trusted them. Who's being naive now?

Finally, Todd asked if Cheney had any regrets about the Iraq War, noting that the invasion has led to chaos in the region. Big surprise: Cheney said no. He repeated the canard that Saddam Hussein "had a 10-year relationship with Al Qaeda." Once again, the 9/11 Commission found that there was no "collaborative operational relationship" between the Iraqi dictator and Al Qaeda, and the Institute for Defense Analyses, a research arm of the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, studied a half million Iraqi documents and concluded there had been no direct connection between Osama bin Laden's gang and Baghdad.

"We did the right thing," Cheney told Todd. But for more than a decade now, Cheney has been peddling false information to the American public: Saddam was amassing WMD to use against the United States, Iraq had obtained aluminum tubes so it could create a nuclear weapon, a 9/11 ringleader met with an Iraqi intelligence officer. And now: Torture wasn't torture, and it worked. After all that—though he's still afforded elder statesman status by much of the media—he probably deserves derision more than rebuttal.

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Elizabeth Warren Says Gay Men Should Be Able To Donate Blood

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 1:39 PM EST
Elizabeth Warren marching in the 2012 Boston Gay Pride Parade

Elizabeth Warren and a host of Democratic lawmakers are demanding the Obama administration stand up for gay rights.

A coalition of 80 senators and House members spearheaded by the Massachusetts senator—alongside Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)—sent a letter Monday to Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, protesting the long-standing prohibition that bars men who have had sex with men from donating blood in the United States.

In 1983, the federal government instituted a lifetime ban for any man who has had sex with another man—even once—at any time after 1977. That rule went into effect during the early days of AIDS panic when the disease was largely unknown. Now, technology exists that can detect HIV within a few weeks of infection.

Last month, an HHS panel that handles blood policy advocated tossing out the lifetime ban—but argued for replacing it with a measure that would keep any sexually active gay man from contributing to the blood supply: a ban on donations from any man who had sex with another man within the past year.

To the Democrats in Congress, that slight improvement isn't nearly enough. The letter calls both the lifetime ban and the one-year deferral policies "discriminatory" and "unacceptable." The lawmakers urged an end to the lifetime ban by the "end of 2014," while also pushing for a less-stringent restriction than the one-year celibacy requirement.

"The recommendation to move to a one-year deferral policy is a step forward relative to current policies; however, such a policy still prevents many low-risk individuals from donating blood," the letter says. "If we are serious about protecting and enhancing our nation's blood supply, we must embrace science and reject outdated stereotypes."

The letter may have been better directed at the Food and Drug Administration. That agency's Blood Products Advisory Panel met earlier this month to consider the one-year deferral proposed by HHS, but the panel of experts seemed more inclined to let the current policy stand rather than loosen the restrictions.

Here's the full letter:

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 15, 2014

Mon Dec. 15, 2014 9:39 AM EST

US Marines conduct a static-line jump to prepare for upcoming deployment. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Anna Albrecht)

Here's a List of People to Follow on Twitter for the Latest on the Australian Hostage Crisis

| Sun Dec. 14, 2014 11:06 PM EST
Armed police close to a cafe under siege at Martin Place, in the central business district of Sydney, Australia, Monday, Dec. 15, 2014.

An armed assailant is holding an unconfirmed number of hostages in a cafe in downtown Sydney. Police have evacuated the area and are locking down a pedestrian thoroughfare, Martin Place. Here is a partial list of people and organizations you can follow on Twitter to stay up-to-date on the ongoing hostage crisis:

  • Buzzfeed Australia's breaking news reporter Mark Di Stefano is on the scene.
  • Channel 9 journalist Caroline Marcus is doing a great job covering the unfolding events.
  • Guardian Australia's Bridie Jabour has been running that site's live blog and beta-testing the facts as they emerge.
  • Sydney police reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Lucy Carter, is also on the scene and tweeting.
  • Jess Hill is also doing a great job fact-checking the news as it breaks.
  • Cath Turner, a reporter for Seven News, a television company with studios within walking distance of the cafe.
  • You should already be following the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Mark Colvin for everything Australia-related.
  • For political ramifications, Fairfax reporter Latika Bourke is a great go-to.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • The ABC
  • The Australian Newspaper
  • The New South Wales police, who are taking the lead on operations

I Was There When an Undercover Cop Pulled a Gun on Unarmed Protesters in Oakland. Here's How It Happened.

| Fri Dec. 12, 2014 7:12 PM EST

Over the past 24 hours, photos showing a plainclothes police officer pulling a gun on unarmed protesters in Oakland have gone viral. Tens of thousands of people, and news outlets like Gawker, Buzzfeed, The Guardian, and NBC have shared them, often including outraged comments. But there have been few accounts of what exactly happened, and how the incident came to pass.

I was one of the few reporters with the protesters at that point, around 11:30 p.m., and what I saw may add some useful context.

The protest was the latest in a series that have filled the streets of Berkeley and Oakland in the past couple of weeks in response to the lack of indictments for the officers who had killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner. (I covered most of them via Twitter.) Marchers generally remained peaceful. Sometimes they overtook highways and blocked intersections. Parents pushed strollers, students kept stride with older marchers, and people from all across the Bay Area joined in. But there was also infighting among the crowds, and breakaway factions looted stores, smashed windows, and burned trash cans. Police officers responded with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and fired non-lethal bullets*, and their actions were often met with outrage.

Protesters run after police set off flashbang grenades in Oakland, Calif. Gabrielle Canon

Wednesday night seemed as if it was going to end differently. Organizers with hoarse voices rallied the crowd of some 150 with updates on the movement that they said was building across the country. They presented a petition listing demands, including for Darren Wilson to be indicted and protesters who'd been arrested to be released without charges. Starting at the Berkeley campus, the group marched peacefully toward Oakland as a rainstorm approached.

A little girl rides along on her stroller, chanting in a march last week. Gabrielle Canon

About 10:30 p.m., a small group from within the march broke windows at a T-Mobile store and smashed Bank Of America ATMs. Protesters blocked photographers documenting the violence, pushing us and putting their hands in front of lenses.

Marching floods into the streets in Berkeley, CA early on Wednesday night Gabrielle Canon

Shortly after this, police presence increased. Squad cars and white vans full of officers followed the march slowly as announcements rang out over a police intercom informing protesters that police were there for their protection and that their right to demonstrate was being respected. They also warned that any vandalism or violence would lead to citation or arrest.

According to reporter David DeBolt, writing for Inside Bay Area, officials say it was then that two undercover officers joined the march, both wearing dark handkerchiefs and hoods that covered their faces. I had not seen them earlier, and they did not appear in any of the photos I took.

A marcher does a different take on "Hands up don't shoot" Gabrielle Canon

Suddenly, behind me, someone started to yell. A protester had discovered the undercover cops and shouted an alarm. Others began to join in, calling them pigs and telling them to go home. The two men passed me in silence, at a hurried pace. Suddenly, a scuffle erupted as one protester attempted to pull off one of the officer's hoods. The officer tackled someone involved, and was quickly surrounded by a small crowd and kicked from several directions while on the ground. (That officer, who was African American, is who you see in the ground in the photo above.) The other officer stepped in front of his partner and brandished a baton. When the crowd did not back up he drew his gun, pointing at protesters and photographers. Moments later, police flooded the area, scattering marchers and blocking others, as the undercover officers arrested the man who had been tackled in the skirmish.

Protester in Oakland, CA Gabrielle Canon

DeBolt reports the undercover officers were later identified as members of California Highway Patrol, assigned to follow the march on foot. They had been following in a vehicle providing information to stop protesters from blocking highways. Officials said in a press conference that the agency is investigating the incident, but believes the officers did what was necessary to protect themselves. They said that undercover cops had been deployed in prior protests and would be again, and that Twitter accounts had also been used to gather information.

The incident and photo have sparked anger and questions about police tactics in crowd control. Protesters are expected to resume marching over the weekend throughout the Bay Area and I will send out updates on Twitter as events unfold.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated the location from which nonlethal bullets were fired. The language has been changed to fix the error.