Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 14, 2014

Fri Mar. 14, 2014 7:12 AM PDT

MAINZ, Germany - Soldiers from U.S. Army Europe assist with the loading of rail cars during USAREUR’s Contingency Command Post (CCP) deployment operations for Saber Guardian 2014. The CCP, established as a rapidly deploying, forward command and control element in support of missions directed by USAREUR, is currently preparing for Saber Guardian 2014. The training, held in the Republic of Bulgaria, is a USAREUR-led multinational exercise designed to strengthen international government agencies and military partnering. The exercise will further strengthen interoperability between NATO and partner nations involved in foreign consequence management operations with U.S. forces and foster trust between regional partner military forces. Personnel from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Turkey and the U.S., as well as representatives from NATO, will participate in the exercise. (U.S. Army Europe photo by Spc. Joshua Leonard)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

WATCH: Rand Paul's Big Flip-Flop on Russia

| Fri Mar. 14, 2014 4:59 AM PDT

Earlier this week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) slammed President Barack Obama for not doing enough in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's incursion into Crimea. In a Time op-ed, Paul huffed:

It is our role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia's latest aggression.

Putin must be punished for violating the Budapest Memorandum, and Russia must learn that the U.S. will isolate it if it insists on acting like a rogue nation.

This does not and should not require military action. No one in the U.S. is calling for this. But it will require other actions and leadership, both of which President Obama unfortunately lacks.

Paul went on to outline a number of steps he would take, were he president, including imposing economic sanctions and visa bans (which Obama has already implemented), kicking Russia out of the G-8, and building the Keystone XL pipeline. (He did not explain how helping a Canadian firm export tar sands oil would intimidate Putin.) He added, "I would reinstitute the missile-defense shields President Obama abandoned in 2009 in Poland and the Czech Republic." He griped, "The real problem is that Russia's President is not currently fearful or threatened in any way by America's President, despite his country's blatant aggression."

With this article, Paul was eagerly joining the GOP chorus that in recent days has been blasting Obama for being weak and feckless regarding Putin and the Ukraine. That was not surprising. As a politician pondering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Paul has had to contend with complaints from the GOP's overlapping neocon and establishment wings that he is an isolationist "wacko bird," as Sen. John McCain indelicately put it. Here was a chance to join his party's mainstream in denouncing Obama. Yet to become a member in good standing of the GOP's Get-Obama Brigade, Foreign Policy Division, Paul had to flip-flop.

In April 2009, Paul, on the cusp of launching his Senate campaign, gave a talk to the College Republicans group at Western Kentucky University. He was asked about the large number of US troops stationed overseas by an audience member who said it was "ridiculous" for the United States to maintain permanent military bases in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Paul responded sympathetically: "We're now 60 years in Germany, 60 years in Japan, 50 years in Korea." He defended his father, Ron Paul, for having noted during the 2008 presidential race that there were foreign policy causes for 9/11: "We have to understand there is blowback from our foreign policy."

Arguing for a restrained foreign policy (and smaller military establishment), Paul immediately turned to the subject of Russia's invasion of Georgia the previous year (which these days has often been cited as analogous to the Ukraine crisis).

For example, we have to ask ourselves, "Who needs to be part of NATO? What does NATO need to be at this point?" One of the big things [for] the neocons—the people in the Republican Party sort of on the other side from where I come from—is they want Georgia to be part of NATO. Well, Georgia sits right on the border of Russia. Do you think that might be provocative to put them in NATO? NATO's treaty actually says that if they're attacked, we will defend them. So, if the treaty means something, that means all of a sudden we're at war with Russia. If Georgia would had become, Bush wanted Georgia to become part of NATO, had they been part of NATO, we'd be at war with Russia right now. That's kinda a scary thing. We have to decide whether putting missiles in Poland is gonna provoke the Russians. Maybe not to war, but whether it's worth provoking them, or whether we have the money to do it.

Here's the video:

So when Russia sent troops into Georgia (on George W. Bush's watch), Paul didn't want to provoke Russia by placing missiles in Poland. Yet today, when Russia moves into Ukraine (on Obama's watch), he's all for dispatching missiles to Poland to send a message to Putin. Does Paul care more about Crimea than Georgia? Or does he care more about keeping a foot on the GOP's anti-Obama bandwagon? Paul's office did not respond to a request for comment.

It appears that Paul, an isolationist who doesn't want to be isolated within the GOP, spotted the opportunity to develop some Obama-bashing hawk cred as the presidential campaign nears. "I stand with the people of Ukraine," Paul declares now, though that was not what he said about Georgians. What's changed in the past six years: geopolitics or Paul's own political calculations?

McDonald's Accused of Stealing Wages From Already Underpaid Workers

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 1:23 PM PDT

Fast food workers make very little money. How little money? Very little money! So little in fact that a single parent of one living in New York City would have to work 144 hours a week "to make a secure yet modest living." But apparently, those wages are not low enough, a group of McDonald's workers allege, to stop the company from also stealing from them.

Wage-theft suits brought against McDonald's this week in Michigan, California, and New York accuse the chain of refusing to pay overtime, ordering people to work off the clock, and straight up erasing hours from timecards. If these allegations are true, and maybe they're not, but maybe they are, then the company has been illegally screwing people who are already being legally screwed.

This is the most recent development in a months-long campaign by fast-food workers pushing for a $15/hour starting wage.

You shouldn't eat fast food because fast food is bad for you but if you do eat fast food (and you will eat fast food at least once in a while because nobody can be perfect all the time), be nice to the people who serve you. They have to fight tooth and nail to make ends meet.

Could you make it on fast food wages? Here's a depressing calculator. (Spoiler: Probably not!)
 

$  

The Fed Was Supposed to Rein In Its Bailout Powers. Instead It Did This.

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 9:05 AM PDT
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen at a House hearing in February.

Between 2007 and 2009, the Federal Reserve—the US central bank tasked with regulating unemployment and inflation—handed out an unprecedented $20 trillion in super-low interest loans to failing Wall Street banks. The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law required the Fed to restrict its emergency lending powers so that too-big-to-fail banks don't expect the central bank to dole out easy money again in the event of another financial crisis. The Fed waited over three years to craft regulations to comply with the Dodd-Frank provision, and now it has finally drafted rules to limit its bailout powers, financial reform advocates say the restrictions are far too weak.

Dodd-Frank says that any future emergency lending by the Fed can't be used to bail out insolvent firms, has to be backed by good collateral, and can't go to a single institution. The law also imposes time limits on the Fed's emergency loans to banks. The draft rule that the Federal Reserve released in late December (before current Fed chair Janet Yellen was confirmed) misses the mark on all these requirements, Marcus Stanley, the policy director for the advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) said in a letter to the Fed this week, adding that though the rule "complies with the letter of the law, it does not fulfill the spirit of the Congressional mandate," which intended to significantly restrict the Fed's bailout abilities.

"The rule mostly reiterates the language of [Dodd-Frank]," Stanley says. "And the drafters take advantage of every opportunity to interpret the statute in ways that minimize limits on emergency lending authority."

Instead of limiting the Fed's emergency lending powers to temporary cash assistance as it is supposed to, the draft rule imposes no clear time limit on how long a big bank may remain dependent on Fed largesse. And the draft regulation defines "solvency" with far too broad a brush, according to AFR. The proposed rule does not require the Fed to assess if a potential borrower's liabilities exceed the value of its assets.

While the emergency lending rule would ban loans to a single institution, it would still allow the creation of loan programs that lend to, say, three or four of the largest banks, while allowing smaller banks to flounder.

The Fed's draft emergency lending rule does not even set an interest rate at which loans will be extended, a provision that would help to limit the "moral hazard" of easy money, AFR notes. And the rule is unclear as to how it would value borrowers' collateral.

The Fed declined to comment. But last year, former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke dismissed concerns that the central bank had not yet drafted a rule limiting its emergency lending powers, insisting that the language in the Dodd-Frank law was sufficient. "I think that [Dodd-Frank] is very clear about what we can and cannot do. And I don't think that the absence of a formal rule would allow us to do something which the law prohibits," including bailing out an individual firm, or lending to an insolvent bank, he said at a House hearing in July.

The Fed is currently accepting public comment on its emergency lending rule, so it is possible that reformers may win some victories before a final rule is put in place. Though the lobbying clout of the financial industry vastly outweighs that of pro-reform groups.

Before the Fed finally drafted its emergency lending rules, financial reformers said the central bank was likely dragging its feet because it didn't want to cede some of its authority over the financial world. This latest lukewarm effort to rein in its bailout abilities makes it seem like that may be the case.

"There are two ways to keep the economy on an even keel," AFR's Stanley told me last July. "Through clear, transparent rules that treat everyone the same—which is pretty challenging, and involves taking on a lot of interests." Or, he says, "you get to create a whole bunch of money out of nothing and you can hand it out wherever the problem is… It's easier to have this magic power."

Mitch Albom Becomes an Issue in Michigan House Primary

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 7:59 AM PDT

According to a conservative PAC, Republican House candidate David Trott is one of the five people you meet in Hell. Trott, who is challenging first-term GOP Rep. Kerry Bentivolio in the GOP primary for Michigan's 11th district, runs a law firm that specializes in mortgage foreclosures. In a new ad, a Virginia-based group called Freedom's Defense Fund highlights a foreclosure Trott's firm processed in 2011 that left a 101-year-old homeowner, Texana Hollis, out on the street:

The eviction highlighted in the ad came about after the woman's son fell behind on his property tax payments and ignored repeated warnings. But there was a happy ending: Detroit Free-Press columnist and airport bookstore king Mitch Albom bought the house and transferred it back to Hollis.

As I reported in January, Trott has a hand in every step of the foreclosure process—he even owns the newspaper where foreclosure notices are required to be posted. But while the ad itself is brutal, it probably won't do much damage, because Freedom's Defense Fund is only spending $15,000 to run it on local cable channels. That's consistent with a group that spends much of the money it raises paying Washington-area direct-mail outfits. Of the $1.6 million FDF spent in 2013, just $120,000 went toward candidates or independent expenditures. As Think Progress notes, $1.2 million went to fundraising services, which means the PAC is spending most of the money it raises on raising more money.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 13, 2014

Thu Mar. 13, 2014 7:05 AM PDT

Lance Cpl. Steven T. Peterson, a machine gunner with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division and part of Black Sea Rotational Force 14, subdues a simulated enemy during a mechanical arm control holds course after being exposed to oleoresin capsicum spray on Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, March 5, 2014. The Marines were directly exposed to the OC spray, then instructed to complete a course with different stations which required them to execute different take down techniques on a simulated enemy combatant. Black Sea Rotational Force 14 is a contingent of Marines to maintain positive relations with partner nations, regional stability and increase interoperability while providing the capability for rapid crisis response, as directed by U.S. European Command, in the Black Sea, Balkan and Caucus regions of Eastern Europe. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Scott W. Whiting/Released)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Guns May Soon Be Everywhere in Georgia

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Update March 21, 2014 4:15 p.m. EDT: Last night, in the final minutes of its annual legislative session, the Georgia House passed a bill with the "guns everywhere" bill attached; HB 60 now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal's desk for a signature. The state Senate had sent the bill back to the House with a few minor amendments earlier in the week; Among the tweaks was a provision allowing religious leaders to decide whether guns may be carried in their houses of worship; the fine for not respecting those wishes can be no more than $100. Another change permits the use of silencers while hunting on some public land and on private property if the owners approve.

Otherwise, the final bill was largely the same as the one previously passed by the House. A copy of the final bill is not yet available, but according to the list of Senate amendments, changes were not made to sections providing for the expansion of Stand Your Ground. Opponents of the bill say the SYG provisions would allow convicted felons or others using guns illegally to claim a Stand Your Ground defense. 

If Gov. Deal signs the bill, it will go into effect on July 1. "We expect Governor Deal to sign the bill as he has always stated that he will sign any pro 2A [2nd Amendment] bill that reaches his desk," the pro-gun group Georgia Carry stated on its website this morning. Deal has an A rating from the National Rifle Association.

Soon gun owners in the state of Georgia may be allowed to pack heat almost anywhere—including K-12 schools, bars, churches, government buildings, and airports. The "Safe Carry Protection Act" (HB 875) would also expand Georgia's Stand Your Ground statute, the controversial law made famous by the Trayvon Martin killing, which allows armed citizens to defend themselves with deadly force if they believe they are faced with serious physical harm.

The bill could pass as soon as next week, before the current legislative session ends March 20. It is the latest effort in the battle over gun laws that continues to rage in statehouses around the country. It is perhaps also the most extreme yet. "Of all the bills pending right now in state legislatures, this is the most sweeping and most dangerous," Laura Cutiletta, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told PolitiFact. Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun reform advocacy group founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head, has deemed it the "guns everywhere" bill. For its part, the National Rifle Association recently called HB 875 "the most comprehensive pro-gun reform legislation introduced in recent state history."

In addition to overturning current state laws and dramatically rolling back concealed-carry restrictions, HB 875 would loosen other gun regulations in the state. The law would:

  • Remove the fingerprinting requirement for gun license renewals
  • Prohibit the state from keeping a gun license database
  • Tighten the state's preemption statute, which restricts local governments from passing gun laws that conflict with state laws
  • Repeal the state licensing requirement for firearms dealers (requiring only a federal firearms license)
  • Expand gun owner rights in a declared state of emergency by prohibiting government authorities from seizing, registering, or otherwise limiting the carrying of guns in any way permitted by law before the emergency was declared
  • Limit the governor's emergency powers by repealing the ability to regulate the sale of firearms during a declared state of emergency
  • Lower the age to obtain a concealed-carry license from 21 to 18 for active-duty military and honorably discharged veterans who've completed basic training
  • Prohibit detaining someone for the sole purpose of checking whether they have a gun license

The sweeping bill would also expand the state's Stand your Ground law into an "absolute" defense for the use of deadly force in self-protection. "Defense of self or others," the bills reads "shall be an absolute defense to any violation under this part." In its current wording, the bill would even allow individuals who possess a gun illegally—convicted felons, for example—to still claim a Stand Your Ground defense.

In a Radical Shift, California Police Chiefs Push for Regulation of Medical Marijuana

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, but like the pimply-faced stoner dude you may have known in high school, it hasn't had the healthiest of relationships with Mary Jane. The Golden State differs from most others with medical pot laws in that it doesn't actually regulate production and sale of the herb. Instead, it lets cities and counties enact their own laws—though in practice most haven't. The result has been the Wild West of weed: Almost any adult can score a scrip and some bud from a local dispensary, assuming, of course, that it hasn't yet been raided and shut down by the feds. 

But all of that might be about to change. The California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA) recently announced support for a bill that would put the state in the business of regulating the medical pot trade. Though you'd think cops would have pushed for such a thing decades ago, the reality is quite the opposite: The CPCA and other law enforcement organizations have, until now, opposed pretty much every reform to California's medical marijuana system for fear that anything short of completely abolishing it would legitimize it.

"With no regulations, you get your doors kicked in."

The CPCA's change of heart "is a huge for us," says Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, the state's marijuana industry trade group. Bradley agrees with his police adversaries that tighter regs would legitimize medical marijuana, which is why the CCIA has pushed for them since the group's inception four years ago. Bolstering his case, the US Department of Justice last year announced that it would no longer raid dispensaries in states that it believes are regulating them adequately—a formulation that seemed to exclude California. New rules issued last month by the Obama administration allow banks to accept funds from pot dealers, but only if they're licensed in the state where they operate.

So why are California's drug warriors reversing course? "We could no longer ignore that the political landscape on this issue was shifting," the CPCA explained in a letter written jointly with the League of California Cities. Polls and changing federal policies suggest that medical pot reform "could be enacted," and that "without our proactive intervention, it could take a form that was severely damaging to our interests."

The bill that law enforcement groups are backing, SB 1262, is flawed, but it's something that "we can work with," says Bradley, who previously worked as a cop in California's Yuba County. Advocates of medical pot don't like how the bill constrains the ability of doctors to recommend marijuana, outlaws potent pot concentrates such as hash oil, and puts regulation in the hands of the Department of Public Health, rather than the Department of Alcoholic Beverages Control.

Sen. Feinstein: The CIA Scandal Began Because the Agency Misled Congress About Torture

| Wed Mar. 12, 2014 2:13 PM PDT

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, kicked off a Washington kerfuffle with significant constitutional implications when she took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to accuse the CIA of spying on her committee's investigation into its controversial interrogation and detention program. As pro-CIA partisans and the agency's overseers on Capitol Hill squared off for a DC turf battle—with finger-pointing in both directions—lost in the hubbub was a basic and troubling fact: Feinstein had contended that this all began because, years ago, the spies of Langley had severely misled the legislators responsible for overseeing the intelligence agencies.

At the start of her speech, Feinstein laid out the back story, and her account is a tale of a major CIA abuse. The CIA's detention and interrogation (a.k.a. torture) program began in 2002. For its first four years, the CIA only told the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate intelligence committee about the program, keeping the rest of the panel in the dark. In September 2006, hours before President George W. Bush was to disclose the program to the public, then CIA Director Michael Hayden informed the rest of the committee. This piece of history shows the limits of congressional oversight. If only two members of the committee were informed, it meant that the panel could not provide full oversight of this program. But keeping secrets from legislators—even members of the intelligence committee—is not that unusual, and the story gets worse.

In December 2007, the New York Times reported that the CIA had destroyed two videotapes of the CIA's interrogation (or torture) sessions. After this disclosure, Hayden told the Senate intelligence committee that eradicating the videos was not as worrisome as it seemed. According to Feinstein, he noted that CIA cables had detailed the interrogations and detention conditions and were "a more than adequate representation" of what had happened. He offered Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who was then chairing the committee, the opportunity to review these thousands of cables. Rockefeller dispatched two staffers to peruse these records.

It took the pair about a year to sift through all the material and produce a report for the intelligence committee. That report, Feinstein noted, was "chilling." The review, she said, showed that the "interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us."

That is, the CIA had misled the Capitol Hill watchdogs.

After reading the staff report, Feinstein, now chairing the committee, and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), then the senior Republican on the committee, decided a far more expansive investigation was called for. On March 5, 2009, the committee voted 14 to 1 to initiate a full-fledged review of the CIA's detention and interrogation program.

It is that inquiry that has caused the recent fuss, with Feinstein claiming that the CIA (possibly illegally) penetrated computers used by committee investigators and removed documents indicating a CIA internal review of this program had concluded it was poorly managed, went too far, and did not produce decent intelligence. The committee's more comprehensive review eventually produced a 6,300-page report slamming CIA that has yet to be made public, despite Feinstein pushing the CIA to declassify it.

So while this week's focus is on whether the CIA improperly—or illegally—spied on the folks who have the constitutional obligation to monitor CIA actions in order to ensure the agency acts appropriately and within US law, Feinstein's big reveal also presented a highly troubling charge: The CIA lied to Congress about what might be its most controversial program in decades. This in and of itself should be big news.

At the conclusion of her speech, Feinstein, referring to the present controversy, said, "How this will be resolved will show whether the intelligence committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation's intelligence activities or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee." That is true. And if there cannot be effective oversight of intelligence operations, then the foundation of the national security state is in question. Yet Feinstein's remarks provide evidence that oversight was not working prior to the current face-off. If the CIA did not tell the Senate intelligence committee the truth about its interrogation and detention program, much more needs to be resolved than whether the spies hacked the gumshoes of Capitol Hill.

Are Russia and Ukraine on the Verge of an All-Out Cyberwar?

| Wed Mar. 12, 2014 9:16 AM PDT

For the past week, reports of physical violence have been rolling out of Ukraine: Russian troops storming a base in Crimea, officers beating journalists, and violent brawls at rallies. But as tensions escalate, another part of the conflict appears to be playing out in a cloudier realm: cyberspace.

On Saturday, Ukraine's top security agency—the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine—announced at a briefing that it had been hit by severe denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, "apparently aimed at hindering a response to the challenges faced by our state." This comes on the heels of a number of alleged hacks involving Russian and Ukrainian targets, including attacks on news outlets and blocking reception to the cellphones of Ukrainian parliament members.

Security experts say the region is currently seeing an unusually high number of DDoS attacks, which aim to shut down networks, usually by overwhelming them with traffic. But many of those seem to be coming from third parties, rather than government entities. In terms of state-sponsored cyberwarfare, "we haven't seen that much," says Dmitri Alperovitch, CTO of CrowdStrike, a California-based cybersecurity firm. Alperovitch adds, though, that his firm has seen a significant amount of cyber-espionage on the part of the Russian intelligence services—including tracking the activities of Putin opponents in both Russia and Ukraine—but he would not disclose names of those being monitored.

Ukraine is situated in a region of the world known for breeding some of the most talented cyber criminals. Several Russian universities offer top-notch hacking training, and a Ukrainian hacker is suspected in December's theft of 40 million credit card numbers from Target. But Ukraine and Russia aren't on equal footing when it comes to their cyberwarfare capabilities. "Russia is a Tier 1 cyber power," says Alperovitch. "Ukraine isn't even in Tier 3." So Russia has a leg up in this arena—and, during past conflicts with former Soviet bloc countries, it has flexed its cyberwarfare muscles. In April 2007, hackers unleashed a wave of cyberattacks on Estonian government agencies, banks, businesses, newspapers, and political parties, following a spat over the removal of a Soviet war memorial in Tallin, the country's capital. (The Kremlin took only partial credit for the crippling three-week attack.) Georgia was targeted with similar attacks in 2008 in the days leading up to its invasion of the secessionist republic of South Ossetia. (Russian involvement was widely suspected.)

Ukraine has yet be targeted with these type of widespread cyberassaults on key infrastructure—but it may not be long. "I anticipate continued escalation," says Jason Healey, director of the Atlantic Council's Cyber Statecraft Initiative and the former White House director of cyber infrastructure protection during the Bush administration. So far, the cyberskirmish is playing out differently than past attacks, Healey says. While the Estonia and Georgia attacks were strictly digital, in Ukraine's case, pro-Moscow forces have also deployed more hands-on attacks on information: "This old-school, Cold War style physical manipulation of equipment. Getting in and physically messing with the switches so Ukrainian civic leaders don't have phone service," Healey says. In Ukraine, these sorts of attacks ​are likely to be a bigger threat, because much of the telecommunications infrastructure was installed by Russians during the Soviet era. "Cyberattacks the way we tend to look at them—denial-of-service attacks, and so forth—you don't have to do those when you've got physical access to the guy's switch!" says Healey.

Here's a run-down of what has transpired so far: