Political MoJo

The Government May Soon Send This Reporter to Jail. Here Are the Embarrassing Secrets He Exposed.

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
James Risen speaks at the University of California, Berkeley

The Obama administration has fought a years-long court battle to force longtime New York Times national security correspondent James Risen to reveal the source for a story in his 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Risen may soon serve jail time for refusing to out his source. The fight has drawn attention to Obama's less-than-stellar track record on press freedom—in a recent interview, Risen called the president "the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation." But lost in the ruckus are the details of what Risen revealed. Here's what has the government so upset.

In State of War, Risen revealed a secret CIA operation, code-named Merlin, that was intended to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. The plan—originally approved by president Bill Clinton, but later embraced by George W. Bush—was to pass flawed plans for a trigger system for a nuclear weapon to Iran in the hopes of derailing the country's nuclear program. "It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world," Risen wrote in State of War, "providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from the rogue countries like Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short."

The flaws in the trigger system were supposed to be so well hidden that the blueprints would lead Iranian scientists down the wrong path for years. But Merlin's frontman, a Russian nuclear scientist and defector then on the CIA's payroll, spotted the flaws almost immediately. On the day of the handoff in Vienna in winter 2000, the Russian, not wanting to burn a bridge with the Iranians, included an apologetic note with his delivery, explaining that the design had some problems. Shortly after receiving the plans, one member of the Iranian mission changed his travel plans and flew back to Tehran, presumably with the blueprints—and the note—in hand. Merlin did not wreck the Iranian nuclear program—in fact, Risen wrote, the operation could have accelerated it. 

In a sworn affidavit filed in 2011, and in a recently rejected appeal to the US Supreme Court, Risen has argued that his reporting served the public good. Published at a time when military action in Iran seemed possible, State of Fear revealed how much of the effort to gather information on Iran's nuclear capability was not just shoddy but dangerous—even, in the case of Operation Merlin, helping Iran get closer to building a nuclear weapon. 

The Bush administration did not see it that way. In 2008, Bush's Justice Department subpoenaed Risen, demanding that he reveal his source—or face jail time for contempt of court. After taking office in 2009, the Obama administration renewed the Bush-era subpoena and continued to try to identify and prosecute Risen's source. Justice Department staff believe they know who the source was—an ex-CIA operations officer named Jeffrey Sterling, who was previously an on-the-record source for Risen—but they want Risen to confirm their hunch and fill in a few details. In legal filings, Justice Department lawyers have called Risen a witness to "serious crimes that implicate the national security of the United States" and argued that "there are few scenarios where the United States' interests in securing information is more profound and compelling than in a criminal prosecution like this one."  

If Risen is called to court to testify but fails to show up or refuses to talk, he's likely to become the first reporter from a major news organization since Judith Miller in 2005 to be sentenced to jail time for refusing to divulge a source. (In 2006, journalist Josh Wolf was imprisoned for 226 days after refusing to comply with a federal subpoena for a video he took of a San Francisco protest.)

This story has been amended to clarify that Wolf, and not Miller, was the last journalist to be imprisoned for refusing to disclose a source.

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Senator Jim Jeffords Died Today. Watch the Moving Speech He Gave Defecting From the GOP.

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 8:55 PM EDT

Former Senator James Jeffords, who represented Vermont in Washington for 32 years, died Monday at the age of 80. He made history when, five months after George W. Bush was inaugurated with a deadlocked Senate in 2001, he left the GOP to become an independent and caucus with the Democrats, thereby handing Dems control of the upper chamber. He did it because "more and more" he found he could not "support the president's agenda." The GOP was no longer the party he grew up in. "Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them."

This was before the tea party, before Guantanamo, before Abu Ghraib, before so much of what we now think of when we think of Republican extremism.

Here is the speech he gave announcing his defection, on May 24, 2001. It's a reminder that the GOP didn't just up and start losing its marbles after Obama's election. It had been dropping them one by one for years.

 

 

It’s Like Yelp For Cops: Teens Make App To Rate Police

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 7:01 PM EDT
An app created by siblings Ima, Asha, and Caleb Christian (shown with their brother Joshua) helps users track police behavior.

Three teens in Georgia just made a mobile app they hope will help prevent the next police shooting of an unarmed young person.

It's called Five-O, after the slang term for police, and it's the brainchild of siblings Ima, 16, Asha, 15, and Caleb Christian, 14, who live in a suburb of Atlanta. Here's how it works: After interacting with a cop, users open the app and fill out a Yelp-like form on which they can grade the officer's courtesy from A to F, check a box if they were verbally or physically abused, and add details about the incident. They can view ratings on other cops and police departments across the country, participate in community forums, and check out a Q&A titled "Know Your Rights."

Ima Christian says their parents encouraged them to think about how they could respond productively to incidents like Brown's death. "One of the things they really stress is that we focus on finding solutions," she told Mother Jones. "We really hope that Five-O will be able to give every citizen a voice when interacting with the police."

But the Christians say Five-O isn't just for outing bad cops; they hope it will help also highlight good policing. "We want people to be able to document if the police are very courteous or if they save your cat or something," Ima says.

"You’re never too young to learn, and you're never too young to make a difference," Caleb told Business Insider. A similar app made in London to track "stop and search" incidents earned a human rights award in 2012.

The siblings have been honing their coding skills since elementary school by participating in the MIT programs +K12, Scratch, and App Inventor, and they've also taken programming classes at Georgia Tech and Emory, all with encouragement from their parents. They've started their own app development company, Pine Tart, Inc., and they're currently working on two other projects: Froshly, which will help incoming college freshmen meet their classmates, and Coily, which will review hair-care products for black women.

Here's a preview of Five-O:

Pope Francis Backs Military Force Against Extremists in Iraq, Calls for UN Involvement

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 6:06 PM EDT

President Obama's recent decision to use force against Islamic extremists in Iraq has drawn some unexpected support. The AP reported Monday that Pope Francis told reporters in response to questions about the US military intervention that "in these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor."

But Francis stopped short of endorsing specific military actions. "I underscore the verb 'stop,'" he added, according to the AP. "I'm not saying 'bomb' or 'make war,' just 'stop.' And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated." And he made clear that he wanted the international community—not just the United States—to decide how to combat the violence in Iraq:

"One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor," he said, apparently referring to the United States. "After World War II, the idea of the United Nations came about: It's there that you must discuss 'Is there an unjust aggression? It seems so. How should we stop it?' Just this. Nothing more."

Two weeks ago, Obama ordered air strikes against the Islamic State—a terrorist group that now controls parts of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—which at the time was threatening to seize control of of Irbil, the Kurdish capital. The group has waged a violent campaign against Iraqi religious minorities, stranding tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi sect in the mountains near Irbil without food or water. On August 8, the Islamic State seized the city of Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian city, forcing thousands of Christians to flee, convert, pay a fine, or be murdered "by the sword," according to CNN. Many Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, a branch of Catholicism.

The Vatican's support for the US intervention, which includes strikes by drones and piloted US fighter jets as well as humanitarian aid for the Yazidis, seems to be somewhat unusual. Just last September, Francis held a massive vigil urging the United States to refrain from engaging militarily in the conflict in Syria following massive chemical weapons attacks, which killed more than 1,300 people. Francis described war in 2013 as a "defeat for humanity," echoing the words of Pope John Paul II. In 2003, the Vatican condemned the US invasion of Iraq as a "crime against peace."

But, as the AP points out, "The Vatican has been increasingly showing support for military intervention in Iraq, given that Christians are being directly targeted because of their faith."

This article has been revised.

What Do We Know So Far From Mike Brown's Autopsies?

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 3:26 PM EDT
Daryl Parks, one of the Brown family's attorneys, points to a diagram showing the preliminary results of an independent autopsy.

Normally, it takes weeks to get the results of an autopsy. But today, St. Louis County medical examiner Mary Case announced that Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was killed by a policeman last weekend in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot in the head and chest multiple times. Here's the information we know about Michael Brown's death, and a little background on why autopsies usually take so much longer.

What have the autopsies found so far?
Three separate autopsies are in various stages of completion. The St. Louis County medical examiner's office announced on Monday that Brown was killed by multiple bullets to the chest and head. The office has not yet released information about the number or location of the bullets or their toxicology report. According to a confidential source reporting to the Washington Post, Brown's toxicology test found that he tested positive for marijuana.

The preliminary results of an independent autopsy arranged by the Brown family and performed on Sunday by former New York City Chief Medical Examiner Michael Baden found that Brown was shot six times: four times in his right arm, and twice in the head. One of the bullets entered the top of Brown's skull, indicating that his head was tilted forward when the bullet struck him and caused a fatal injury. According to Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing the Browns, the family wanted "an autopsy done by somebody who is objective and who does not have a relationship with the Ferguson police."

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Sunday that the Justice Department would conduct a third autopsy, because of "the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family." A department representative said the autopsy would take place "as soon as possible."

Why does it usually take so long to get autopsy results?
An autopsy itself usually doesn't take too long, but often, medical examiners will wait to release the results until toxicology tests, which analyze the presence of drugs, are also complete. Toxicology tests usually take several weeks, in part due to the chemistry involved and in part because there's often a backlog of tests. Coupling the release of the toxicology and autopsy results is standard practice because it gives a more complete picture of what may have happened during the shooting, says Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist and the author of Working Stiff: The Making of a Medical Examiner. Determining whether or not a person was under the influence of drugs "may help interpret a person's behavior and reaction time," she says.

What do toxicology tests entail?
A basic screening often involves using immunoassays to test blood and urine (from inside the body) for drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, and opiates. If a test comes back positive, then a lab will run more complex tests, like mass spectrometry, to determine the exact concentration of the drug. Melinek says that "negative results come back faster," and "the more drugs found in a person's system, the longer it takes because each has to be verified and quantitated." If Brown only tested positive for marijuana, the tests would only take a few days.

Was Brown's case slowed down by an autopsy backlog?
Autopsy backlogs do exist—last year in Massachusetts, for example, there were nearly 1,000 unfinished death certificates due to lack of qualified pathologists and state funding for toxicology testing. According to Suzanne McCune, a representative of the St. Louis County medical examiner's office, Brown's case was expedited through the system, as often happens for cases involving officers.

The St. Louis Area Has a Long History of Shameful Racial Violence

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 9:45 AM EDT
A mob blocks a street car during the East St. Louis Riot of July 1917 University of Massachusetts-Amherst Libraries

The shooting of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent riots, protests, and police crackdown have highlighted the area's long history of racial strife. One chapter from that history, a century-old summer riot just fourteen miles away from Ferguson, in East St. Louis, Illinois, shows how black Americans were subjected to racial violence from the moment they arrived in the region.

In 1917, East St. Louis was crowded with factories. Jobs were abundant. But as World War I halted the flow of immigration from Eastern Europe, factory recruiters started looking toward the American South for black workers. Thousands came, and as competition for jobs increased, a labor issue became a racial one.

East St. Louis' angry white workers found sympathy from the leaders of the local Democratic party, who feared that the influx of black, mostly Republican voters threatened their electoral dominance. In one particularly striking parallel to today's political landscape, local newspapers warned of voter fraud, alleging that black voters were moving between northern cities to swing local elections as part of a far-reaching conspiracy called "colonization," according to the documentary series Living in St. Louis.

A cartoon from the time of the riot, lambasting then-president Woodrow Wilson for making the world "safe for democracy" while ignoring the plight of East St. Louis. Wikipedia

That May, a local aluminum plant brought in black workers to replace striking white ones. Soon, crowds of whites gathered downtown, at first protesting the migration, then beating blacks and destroying property. On July 1, a group of white men drove through a black neighborhood, firing a gun out their car window. (The perpetrators were never caught.) A few hours later, another car drove through the neighborhood. Black residents fired at it, killing two police officers.

On July 2, as news of the killings got out, white residents went tearing through black neighborhoods, beating and killing blacks and burning some 300 houses as National Guard troops either failed to respond or fled the scene. The official toll counted 39 black and eight white people dead, but others speculated that more than a hundred people died in what is still considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in twentieth-century America. Afraid for their lives, more than six thousand blacks left the city after the riot.

That the United States was then fighting in Europe to defend democracy while failing to protect its own citizens was not lost on Marcus Garvey, soon to become one of the most famous civil rights leaders of his time: "This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one's voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy," he said to cheers at a speech in Harlem on July 8. "I do not know what special meaning the people who slaughtered the Negroes of East St. Louis have for democracy... but I do know that it has no meaning for me."

Top image credit: STL250

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How the Defense Industry Convinced Congress to Militarize Local Cops

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Police drift through a cloud of smoke on August 13 in Ferguson, Missouri

The Ferguson, Missouri, police department's display of armored cars, officers in riot gear, and assault rifles over the past week shocked Americans who didn't realize how much military equipment is now available to local police departments. But since the 1990's, more than 8,000 federal, state, tribal, and local police agencies across the country have armed themselves with the military's excess gear, free of charge. The inventory includes everything from office furniture and first aid kits to aircraft, armored cars, rifles and bayonets, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, the Department of Defense office that manages the transactions under an initiative called Program 1033.

In June, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) introduced an amendment to de-fund aspects of the program. Grayson's bill would have exempted certain military equipment, including planes and armored cars, from Program 1033. That effort failed; just 62 members of the House of Representatives voted for the measure, with 355 voting no. Maybe the outcome shouldn't have been a surprise: According to a new analysis of campaign finance data, the politicians who voted against Grayson's bill received, on average, 73 percent more campaign donations from defense industry sources from 2011 through 2013 than their peers who voted for it. 

The analysis—conducted by the Berkeley-based research group MapLight using data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics—also found that of 59 representatives who received more than $100,000 from the defense industry from 2011 through 2013, all but four voted against the amendment.

Correction: The original version of this story said that three representatives who received more than $100,000 from the defense industry voted against the amendment. Four representatives in this category voted against it.

This Guy Appears To Have Live-Tweeted Michael Brown's Shooting

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 6:17 PM EDT

Via Rolling Stone National Affairs reporter (and Mother Jones alumnus) Tim Dickinson, Twitter user @TheePharoah appears to have witnessed—and live-tweeted—Michael Brown's shooting on August 9 from his home in Ferguson, Missouri.

(Scroll to the bottom, the tweets are in reverse chronological order.)

In the days since the unarmed teenager was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson, Feguson has come to look increasingly like a war zone, with the highly militarized police department squaring off against peaceful protestors.

(We've reached out to @TheePharoah and will update this post if we hear back.)

GOP Obstruction Is Making It Harder To Catch Rapists—Mitch McConnell Would Rather Not Talk About It

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 11:47 AM EDT
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will not say if he will stop blocking a major spending bill in the Senate that contains funding to help identify and prosecute rapists—or whether he would support a separate bill to break the log jam.

As I reported last week, since June, Senate Republicans have held up a $180 billion appropriations bill that would fund several federal agencies, including the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Justice. Part of the funding allotted for the DoJ is supposed to go toward a $41 million grant to help states and localities go after rapists by funding jurisdictions to process backlogs of rape kits, the samples of DNA evidence that are taken after a sexual assault and used to identify assailants. There are over 100,000 untested kits waiting to be processed at crime labs and police departments around the country, partly because states and localities don’t have enough money to test them. The kits can go untested for decades, allowing countless rapists off the hook.

The sweeping spending bill has hit a wall in the Senate because McConnell and other Senate Republicans want Dems to let them add several unrelated amendments to the legislation. The amendment McConnell introduced would make it harder for the EPA to enact new rules on coal-fired power plants. Democrats have complained that GOPers are abusing the amendments process to hold up a bill they don’t like. "Regardless of the outcome of the amendment votes…Republicans have indicated that they are not willing to support the underlying bill," a Senate staffer told me last week.

On Tuesday, the Louisville, Ky. Courier-Journal asked McConnell if he would withdraw his amendment, which would indicate that he and fellow Republicans would be willing to vote for the underlying bill, including the $41 million in funding to process rape kit backlogs. McConnell dodged the question. His office did not respond when Mother Jones asked the same question this week.

Lawmakers may be able to add the rape kit funding into an temporary spending measure in October. However, neither McConnell's office nor Republicans on the House and Senate appropriations committees will say whether they would support doing so.

Wondering What #NMOS14 Is?

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 7:08 PM EDT
Jeremiah Parker, 4, stands in front of his mother, Shatara Parker, as they attend a protest Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.

Starting tonight at 7pm Eastern time, a National Moment of Silence event will be playing out in gatherings big and small across the country. It's headed up by a New York-based activist and social worker who writes online as Feminista Jones and talked to USA Today about the event:

After an activist posted on Twitter that there would be a vigil in downtown Manhattan for Brown, Feminista Jones reached out.

"I wonder why they always have vigils so far removed from the people who are most likely to be affected by police brutality," she wrote back to the poster. "I just know that people in the Bronx and Brooklyn will struggle getting there on Sunday trains." (The correspondence is documented in a Storify.)

Plans for the peaceful assemblies began through that platform, then moved to Facebook. It's an update to activism Jones compares to "phone banking and letter writing — just reaching 90,000 people."

"We're having a national moment of silence — one chord, one silent voice — to honor not only Mike Brown, not only Eric Garner, but all victims of police brutality, especially those who have lost their lives," she said.

The Root, the online black culture and politics mag, is using the #NMOS14 tag to post heartbreaking photos of unarmed black men shot by police over the years, from Amadou Diallo to Kimani Gray to Oscar Grant to far too many others.

To find an #NMOS14 event near you, check out the Twitter hashtag #NMOS14 and this Facebook listing of local groups.