Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 10, 2014

Wed Sep. 10, 2014 10:06 AM EDT

US Marines perform a diving exit during pre-deployment training. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Todd F. Michalek)

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Pentagon and Other Agencies Slammed for Police Militarization at Senate Hearing

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 5:07 PM EDT
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) at the Senate hearing.

In a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing Tuesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers slammed officials from the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice for their handling of federal programs that help provide military grade vehicles, equipment, and weapons to local police departments across the country. The hearing was called in response to the events that took place in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, and peaceful protests were met by a heavily militarized police force. "Aggressive police actions [were] being used under the umbrella of 'crowd control,'" noted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

The panel grilled Alan Estevez, a Department of Defense agent dealing with logistics and acquisition of military equipment; Brian Kamoie, a federal grant regulator at the Department of Homeland Security; and Karol Mason, an attorney from the Department of Justice.

Senators questioned why certain military equipment was on the Pentagon's list of acceptable items for local police departments. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) declared that police militarization gives him "real heartburn" and wondered "how did we get to the point where we think states needs MRAPS"—that is, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, which have been acquired by a large number of small police departments across the country. In Texas, McCaskill noted, police departments have more than 70 MRAPS, while the state National Guard has just six.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) questioned what police departments could possibly do with the 1,200 bayonets that have been issued in recent years. The Pentagon's Alan Estevez replied that he was unsure. Throughout the hearing, members of the panel underscored the point that police officers are often not adequately trained in how (and when) to use the military-grade equipment their departments acquire. The Pentagon doesn't require police departments to undergo any training before supplying them MRAPS and other military equipment.

Estevez testified that the Pentagon would reevaluate its list of acceptable equipment for police departments. But Brian Kamoie, the Homeland Security official, and the Justice Department's Karol Mason, both acknowledged that their agencies don't do much to regulate how police departments use the grant money they dole out to local law enforcement.

McCaskill condemned the Department of Defense and the other agencies for their lack of oversight over the use of military equipment by local police. "None of them know how it's being utilized," McCaskill said. She pointed out that a police department in Lake Angelus, Michigan, which employs only one police officer, has received 13 military grade assault weapons since 2011. "I think we need to get to the bottom of that," McCaskill said.

Watch the hearing here:

Ebola Is Getting So Bad That Even House Republicans Will Back New Funds to Fight It

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 4:00 PM EDT
Medical staffers tend to patients infected with the Ebola virus in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Despite some worries last week that spending-averse Republicans might not support additional funding to fight Ebola, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chair of the House appropriations committee, said late Monday that House GOPers will back new money to combat the spread of the disease.

Lawmakers are currently negotiating a temporary spending bill that would fund the government's operations through December. Late Friday, the White House asked Congress to add $30 million to this stopgap spending measure to pay Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff in the United States and Africa. That came on top of $58 million the administration already requested to accelerate the production and testing of new drugs and maintain the development of two experimental Ebola vaccines, bringing the total White House request for Ebola-related funds to $88 million. Rogers wouldn't say whether Republicans would agree to fund the full amount.

The House is due to vote on the bill on Thursday.

If approved, the new money will add to a slow but growing American relief effort, as government agencies steer their budgets to fight Ebola, following calls from the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders to dramatically step up their involvement. On Monday, the Pentagon announced it would deploy one $22 million, 25-person field hospital to Liberia, the current epicenter of the epidemic. The hospital—part of a wider effort coordinated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID)—will be turned over to the Liberian government as soon as it's built and will not be staffed by American government employees.

But with Liberia's medical staff stretched thin, finding the right people to staff the hospital may prove difficult. Liberia's health care system—already strained before the outbreak with one doctor for every 100,000 people—has been hit hard by Ebola. Since the outbreak began, 152 medical workers have contracted the disease in Liberia, the WHO said on Monday, about 7 percent of all suspected and confirmed patients. Seventy-nine of these medical workers have died from the disease.

A single 70-bed facility needs 200 to 250 medical personnel to staff it, according to WHO, and Liberia "urgently needs" 1,000 more beds to treat the currently infected patients.

While there's no cure or approved treatment for Ebola, hospitals and treatment centers are needed to quarantine infected patients. In its statement, the WHO said that sick people in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, were traversing town in taxis looking for a hospital bed, bringing the disease—which is spread through bodily fluids such as blood and saliva—into the city's public transit system.

In a statement to Mother Jones, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the few medical groups which has been actively fighting the disease since the outbreak, said that organization had also dramatically increased its budget for the effort to almost $39 million today. Still, he said, this would not be enough to stave off the disease. 

"Much more help is needed from actors other than MSF," he said.

The most recent figures released by the WHO reported more than 2,000 people either known or believed to have been infected with Ebola, and more than 1,200 known or believed to have been killed in Liberia since the outbreak was first detected in March. More than 2,000 are believed to have been infected and more than 1,000 killed elsewhere in West Africa since the outbreak began, almost all of them in Guinea and Sierra Leone. About 49 percent of the infections in these three countries occurred in the last three weeks. 

On Monday, the WHO said infections in Liberia were increasing "exponentially." On Tuesday, the country's defense minister, Brownie Samukai, called Ebola the worst threat to the country since its last civil war ended in 2003. "Liberia is facing a serious threat to its national existence," he said of the epidemic.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 9, 2014

Tue Sep. 9, 2014 9:52 AM EDT

A US Navy sailor plots the ship's movement on a position chart in Japan. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Raul Moreno Jr.)

Video: What We Saw Before Being Kicked Out of the SWAT Convention

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

This weekend, my colleague Prashanth Kamalakanthan and I attended Urban Shield, a first-responder convention sponsored by more than 100 corporations and the Department of Homeland Security. The five-day confab included a trade show where vendors display everything from armored trucks to sniper rifles to 3-D printable drones. (We documented a few of the more remarkable offerings here.) It also involved the largest SWAT training exercise in the world. Some 35 SWAT teams competed in a 48-hour exercise involving 31 scenarios that included ambushing vehicles, indoor shootouts, maritime interdiction, train assaults, and a mock eviction of a right-wing Sovereign Citizens group. The teams came from cities across the San Francisco Bay Area, Singapore, and South Korea and included a University of California SWAT team, a team of US Marines, and a SWAT team of prison guards.

But on Sunday, at a competition site near the Bay Bridge, our coverage was cut short. A police officer confiscated our press badges, politely explaining that his captain had called and given him the order. The captain, he said, told him we had been filming in an unauthorized location, though he could not tell us where that location was. (We'd been advised earlier that it was okay to film so long as we did not go on the bridge itself.) After several phone calls from both me and my editors, no one could tell us exactly what we had done wrong, but Sergeant J.D. Nelson, the public information officer for the Alameda County Sheriff's Department (which hosts the Department of Homeland Security-funded event) made it clear that we could not have our passes back.

We'll have a more in-depth report, and a lot more images and videos, in a few days.

This Judge Just Said Everything You Want to Say to the Anti-Gay Marriage Crowd, But Better

| Fri Sep. 5, 2014 12:27 PM EDT

On Thursday, federal judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's ruling striking down gay marriage bans in Wisconsin and Indiana. This marks the 22nd time since the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last year that a federal court has found bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. On Wednesday, a different federal judge issued an opinion upholding Louisiana's ban, making the total post-DOMA record 22-1.

Posner's opinion is special, though, because, as Gawker notes, it's, well, amazing. And bitchy. And delicious.

Our pair of cases is rich in detail but ultimately straight-forward to decide. The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don't need marriage because same-sex couples can't produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.

Indiana defended its ban by arguing that the state had no reason to extend marriage to gay people because gay people can't have children—that marriage is designed, in part, to force fathers in hetereosexual relationships to raise children they may or may not have wanted.

At oral argument the state‘s lawyer was asked whether "Indiana's law is about successfully raising children," and since "you agree same-sex couples can successfully raise children, why shouldn't the ban be lifted as to them?" The lawyer answered that "the assumption is that with opposite-sex couples there is very little thought given during the sexual act, sometimes, to whether babies may be a consequence." In other words, Indiana's government thinks that straight couples tend to be sexually irresponsible, producing unwanted children by the carload, and so must be pressured (in the form of governmental encouragement of marriage through a combination of sticks and carrots) to marry, but that gay couples, unable as they are to produce children wanted or unwanted, are model parents—model citizens really—so have no need for marriage. Heterosexuals get drunk and pregnant, producing unwanted children; their reward is to be allowed to marry. Homosexual couples do not produce unwanted children; their reward is to be denied the right to marry. Go figure.

My favorite bit is Posner's response to Indiana's assertion that "homosexuals are politically powerful out of proportion to their numbers."

No evidence is presented by the state to support this contention. It is true that an increasing number of heterosexuals support same-sex marriage; otherwise 11 states would not have changed their laws to permit such marriage (the other 8 states that allow same-sex marriage do so as a result of judicial decisions invalidating the states' bans). No inference of manipulation of the democratic process by homosexuals can be drawn, however, any more than it could be inferred from the enactment of civil rights laws that African-Americans "are politically powerful out of proportion to their numbers." It is to the credit of American voters that they do not support only laws that are in their palpable self-interest. They support laws punishing cruelty to animals, even though not a single animal has a vote.

Go read the whole thing. It's wonderful.

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Active Shooter Drills Don't Really Prepare People, But They Do Make Them Cry

| Fri Sep. 5, 2014 10:58 AM EDT
An active shooter drill at a Florida elementary school.

In the wake of the nation's many recent mass shootings, and in the absence of any meaningful gun control that might stem them, employers and schools have started training their staff to respond should a madman with a gun turn up on their doorsteps. "Active shooter" drills have become the norm in many school districts and downtown office buildings; in many schools, such drills are now mandated by the state. But it turns out that bringing SWAT teams into buildings to simulate an active shooter situation doesn't always make people feel safer. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, such simulations have seriously traumatized and occasionally injured people, sparking a wave of lawsuits.

The Journal tells several amazing stories of people who were injured or utterly freaked out during such drills, which often weren't announced ahead of time. One involves a Colorado nursing home employee whom a man forced at gunpoint into an empty room at work. The "shooter" was actually a local cop and the gun was fake, but the nurse was so scared that even when the "shooter" finally identified himself as a cop after she started crying and begging for her life, she wasn't really sure he was telling the truth. She was so traumatized that she had to quit her job and has since filed a lawsuit against the nursing home.

Active shooter drills often feature scary looking shooters with realistic looking guns who shoot plastic bullets or blanks at participants, who are then supposed to attack the shooter or at least throw things at him. But apparently, far from creating an army of first responders, these drills often leave teachers and other participants hysterical. Critics told the Journal that the exercises have left school employees and others more terrified and ill-equipped to deal with a real shooting than they would have been otherwise:

Some experts, however, say recreating the chaos of a mass shooting is no way to prime for emergencies. "There ends up being zero learning going on because everyone is upset that you've scared the crap out of them," said Greg Crane, a former SWAT officer with the North Richland Hills Police Department near Dallas who holds seminars to teach civilians different strategies to deal with mass-shooting scenarios.

Given the obvious potential for trauma in active shooter drills, schools and post offices and other institutions worried about active shooters might just want to tell everyone to hide under their desks until help arrives.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 5, 2014

Fri Sep. 5, 2014 9:47 AM EDT

US Marines conduct live-fire training.(US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew Callahan)

FedEx Still Hasn’t Stopped Sponsoring Washington’s Football Team. This Smart Ad Takes Them to Task.

| Thu Sep. 4, 2014 6:15 PM EDT

With the NFL season set to kick off tonight, Native American advocacy groups have ramped up their campaign against the racist name of the Washington football team. Their latest target? One of the [Redacted]'s biggest corporate sponsors, FedEx.

In an ad commissioned by the Native Voice Network called "FedEx Fail," a would-be FedEx customer is turned away when trying to ship a variety of items while wearing several different offensive costumes. But when he returns in [Redacted] gear and a cheap headdress, things change. "You are in luck," the Native American clerk tells the customer. "We at FedEx are Washington Redskins corporate sponsors! We embrace this sort of racism!"

Indian Country Today Media Network, which first posted the video, spoke to the campaign's organizers:

"The point of the campaign is to build awareness that the Washington team name is racist," said Laura Harris, executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO). AIO is the main organizer of NVN. "FedEx has a great diversity statement for their employees and corporation," she said. "We think it's hypocritical of them to support an NFL team that uses a racist name when their diversity statement explicitly states they are against racism…Their sponsorship is not appropriate and not in line with their corporate policy."

Notably, when colleague Matt Connolly and I contacted FedEx back in November about the name controversy, here's what a company spokesperson had to say:

We understand that there is a difference of opinion on this issue. Nevertheless, we believe that our sponsorship of FedEx Field continues to be in the best interests of FedEx and its stockholders.

Washington's football team, which plays its home games at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, opens its season Sunday afternoon on the road against the Houston Texans.

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell Convicted on Corruption Charges

| Thu Sep. 4, 2014 4:04 PM EDT

A jury found former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell guilty on 11 counts of corruption on Thursday, ending a bizarre trial that featured bad shrimp, a broken marriage, and non-FDA approved dietary supplements. McDonnell's wife, Maureen, was found guilty on eight charges.

The charges stemmed from the couple's relationship with Johnnie Williams, the former CEO of Star Scientific, Inc., a pharmaceutical company. Williams, dubbed the "tic-tac man" by the governor's staff, was pushing two new drugs, Antabloc and CigRx, and needed help getting the pills into doctors' offices. He lavished gifts on the McDonnells, paying for their daughter's wedding, taking Maureen on shopping sprees, and letting the couple borrow his "James Bond car"—an Aston Martin—for vacations. At one point, he bid against himself at a charity auction to win a free weekend with Maureen. In turn, the McDonnells became Star Scientific boosters. Maureen went so far as to pitch Antabloc to prospective first lady Ann Romney, telling her it could help her MS.

What's there to say about the trial? BuzzFeed's Katherine Miller has the fullest summation of what happened, but let's just call it a mess, a soap opera, the world's worst "Modern Love" column in legalese. It was also a useful corrective to the facade politicians sometimes present when they trot their families in front of the cameras before trying to legislate yours. McDonnell, whose master's thesis at Pat Robertson's Regent University made the case for covenant marriage and subservient roles for wives, built his defense on the theory that his own union was too much of a failure for him and his wife to mount a conspiracy. According to the governor, his wife was a paranoid loon who had a crush on the businessman who bought her nice dresses.

At one point, a former aide to Maureen McDonnell—who called the former first lady a "nutbag"—testified that she had received a text message from the governor's wife alleging that the couple's chef was attempting to ruin Christmas by serving them bad shrimp. Fed up with the McDonnells (who had accused him of stealing food), the chef, Todd Schneider, handed a trove of documents to federal investigators in 2012 that led to the probe. The lesson, as always, is to be nice to the people who prepare your food.