Political MoJo

Jay Carney Is Stepping Down as White House Press Secretary

| Fri May 30, 2014 2:28 PM EDT

Jay Carney is stepping down as White House Press Secretary, President Obama announced Friday. Carney, who joined the administration in 2011 after more than two decades in journalism, will be replaced by Josh Earnest. Earnest had served as Carney's deputy.

Gone but not forgotten, we'll think of Carney whenever we watch A Christmas Story.

 

 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 30, 2014

Fri May 30, 2014 10:12 AM EDT

More than 1,000 cadets of Class of 2014 received their diplomas in Michie Stadium May 28, during the U.S. Military Academy’s Graduation and Commissioning Ceremony. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Fincham)

Measles Cases in the US are at a 20-Year High. Thanks, Anti-Vaxxers.

| Thu May 29, 2014 9:07 PM EDT

New data released by the CDC on Thursday shows that 288 cases of measles have been reported in the US since the beginning of the year—a higher number than those seen in the first five months of any year since 1994. More than one in seven of this year's cases resulted in hospitalization.

As assistant surgeon general Dr. Anne Schuchat explained, "The current increase in measles cases is being driven by unvaccinated people, primarily U.S. residents, who got measles in other countries, brought the virus back to the United States and spread to others in communities where many people are not vaccinated." Several of the cases occurred after US residents traveled to the Philippines, where there has been a measles outbreak since October 2013.

According to the CDC press release, "90 percent of all measles cases in the United States were in people who were not vaccinated or whose vaccination status was unknown. Among the U.S. residents who were not vaccinated, 85 percent were religious, philosophical or personal reasons."

The data adds fuel to the ongoing debate about vaccines: though research from around the world consistently shows that vaccines work, some doctors continue to support opting out of immunizations, and in some states, more than five percent of kindergartners have nonmedical vaccine exemptions.

Measles chart

 

WATCH: To Understand the VA Disaster, Just Call the "Health Care Benefits" Toll Free Number. [Fiore Cartoon]

| Thu May 29, 2014 7:49 PM EDT

 

 

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

Snowden's Odd Email to the NSA Deepens the Mystery

| Thu May 29, 2014 5:21 PM EDT

So you're in the middle of the biggest secrets-blowing caper in the history of the known universe. You're one of a small number of people who have access to the most classified information about the most classified spying programs of the most powerful superpower—and you're swiping tens of thousands of pages of these secrets and preparing to hand them over to journalists. You've already made contact with your recipients—and it was harder than you thought to do so. You've switched jobs, moving from one contractor to another, in order to snatch more of the documents you want revealed to the unknowing public. You're scraping NSA servers. You're watching your back. Oh damn, you are certainly watching your back. You know the people you work for can monitor who gets in and out of the system, and though you are one of the few with the keys to the crypt, you have to be worried—scratch that, paranoid, and rightfully so—that someone's going to wise up. You make a slip—they might be watching right now—and the alarms go off. And it's no more Hawaiian paradise. It's federal prison. But you're committed. You have your plan. You're about to send a security kit to an American reporter who lives in Brazil and works for a British outlet so you can communicate via a safe and encrypted mechanism. You're keeping all of this secret from your live-in girlfriend. You're thinking about your getaway. Iceland, maybe Iceland. You know that you are engaged in risky business. You could end up changing the world. You could end up dead. Yes, dead. On the run, some times things happens. It's possible. Oh, what was that sound? Did something weird just happen with your laptop? Did a strange car drive past the house not once but twice? Man, this is intense.

And in the middle of this adrenalin-laced stretch—on April 5, 2013, a mere weeks before you start slipping that journalist top-secret docs exposing the USG's biggest secrets and then head to Hong Kong to meet him and his compatriots—you send an email to the NSA's general counsel's office, posing a rather prosaic query. One question: Why?

Today the NSA released an email Edward Snowden sent its general counsel on that date. The spy agency was responding to NBC News reporting that it had confirmed that the NSA had received an email from Snowden before he leaked all those documents expressing "policy and legal" concerns. This report seemed to bolster Snowden's claim that he had alerted intelligence officials of his profound concerns about the NSA's extensive surveillance programs before taking matters into his own hand and becoming a whistleblower. But when the NSA put out the email—claiming it was the only communication of this sort it had received from Snowden—there was a surprise: Snowden had not contacted the NSA's top lawyers about possible abuses within the NSA. He had asked questions regarding information in a training course. The course had covered the "Hierarchy of Governing Authorities" for federal action. At the top of the chain was the US Constitution. Right below were federal statutes and presidential executive orders. Snowden wanted to know which of the two ranked higher. "My understanding is that EOs may be superseded by federal statutes, but EOs may not override statute," he wrote. " Am I incorrect in this?" And he had a similar question about Pentagon regulations and Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) rules. 

That was it. A simple query about training material.

Someone in the general counsel's office—the person's name is redacted—replied quickly and informed Snowden that EOs cannot override a statute and that Defense Department and ODNI regs "are afforded similar precedence." This NSA official helpfully added, "Please give me a call if you would like to discuss further." Apparently, if the NSA is to be believed, Snowden was satisfied and did not follow up. 

Why would a fellow currently mounting a significant penetration of an intelligence agency choose on his own to contact the lawyers for that agency and ask these questions? Why did he care about this? Why would he want to be on their radar screen at all at this time? Was he trying to establish some sort of paper trail? Was he worried that he had left a clue somewhere about his ongoing operation and thought such a note would divert attention?

This is a puzzler. Snowden comes across as a smart and thorough fellow who sure knows how to plan well. But how does this email fit into the plan? Marcy Wheeler suggests that Snowden was trying to get the NSA lawyers to admit that the agency saw EOs as top dogs (to prove, in a way, that the NSA was using one particular EO to trump laws that might limit its surveillance activities). Until Snowden explains this email himself, it's hard to know if this is correct. If so, Snowden would be even a cooler cucumber. It's hard to imagine a fellow who's about to sabotage an entire intelligence community deciding that this is a good time to play mind games with the lawyers at the NSA and possibly draw notice. In all his interviews, Snowden hasn't mentioned that he sought to squeeze this kind of secret out of the NSA as he was filling up disk drives with its most sensitive documents. 

So here is a new question about Snowden. And the question remains: whether (and how) Snowden tried to go through channels before going to Greenwald and the Washington Post. 

The ACLU, which represents Snowden, says of this email controversy, "This whole issue is a red herring. The problem was not some unknown and isolated instance of misconduct. The problem was that an entire system of mass surveillance had been deployed—and deemed legal—without the knowledge or consent of the public. Snowden raised many complaints over many channels. The NSA is releasing a single part of a single exchange after previously claiming that no evidence existed." (Mother Jones asked the ACLU if it could share more of this email exchange, and it said it didn't "have any other info.")

Yes, the big picture is still there: How far over the line did the NSA go with its surveillance programs, and what ought to be done about that? But Snowden's tale is also captivating, and the release of this email today adds to the mystery.

UPDATE: Several hours after the NSA released the Snowden email, Snowden told the Washington Post, "Today’s release is incomplete, and does not include my correspondence with the Signals Intelligence Directorate’s Office of Compliance, which believed that a classified executive order could take precedence over an act of Congress, contradicting what was just published. It also did not include concerns about how indefensible collection activities—such as breaking into the back-haul communications of major US internet companies—are sometimes concealed under EO 12333 to avoid Congressional reporting requirements and regulations."

Snowden insisted that he had tried to work within the system: "If the White House is interested in the whole truth, rather than the NSA’s clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for a political advantage, it will require the NSA to ask my former colleagues, management, and the senior leadership team about whether I, at any time, raised concerns about the NSA’s improper and at times unconstitutional surveillance activities. It will not take long to receive an answer."

Snowden said there were other relevant emails (presumably sent to the NSA) "not just on this topic. I’m glad they’ve shown they have access to records they claimed just a few months ago did not exist, and I hope we’ll see the rest of them very soon." He maintained, "I showed numerous colleagues direct evidence of programs that those colleagues considered unconstitutional or otherwise concerning. Today’s strangely tailored and incomplete leak only shows the NSA feels it has something to hide."

If Snowden did have more extensive correspondence with the NSA, he and/or the agency should be able to resolve the question of what he sought to do before revealing the NSA's most important secrets..

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 29, 2014

Thu May 29, 2014 10:08 AM EDT

Cpl. Jeffery Mount, from Hendersonville, Tennessee, team member, Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215, moves his gear in preparation to leave Forward Operating Base Nolay, Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 2, 2014. Mount, along with the rest of SFAAT 2-215, are completing a seven-month deployment to the area as the last advisors in support of the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, Afghan National Army. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joshua Young/Released)

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Elizabeth Warren to Obama: Fed Nominees Should Crack Down On Big Banks

| Thu May 29, 2014 10:07 AM EDT

Elizabeth Warren is at it again. On Wednesday, the senator from Massachusetts and her colleague Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called out the Federal Reserve—the US central bank charged with setting monetary policy and regulating big banks—for being too lax on financial reform, and urged the Obama administration to fill two open seats on the Fed's seven-member board with candidates committed to cracking down on Wall Street.

"As the events of 2008 showed, when the Federal Reserve and other financial regulators failed to engage in appropriate financial regulation, the results were the worst financial crisis in 80 years," the two senators wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama Wednesday. "Financial regulation and oversight obligations must be front and central to the Board's work."

The Fed's banking watchdog duties include imposing penalties on financial firms for violations such as inadequate money laundering protections and faulty foreclosure practices. Federal Reserve board members also vote on restrictions on CEO pay and rules governing how much emergency capital banks have to keep on their books.

This is not the first time that Warren has pushed the Fed to take its financial regulatory role more seriously. Earlier this year, she called on the heads of the central bank to stop delegating big decisions on bank oversight to staffers. Of the close to 1,000 formal enforcement actions taken by the Federal Reserve over the past decade, only 11 were voted on by the board itself. The rest were delegated to Fed staff, sometimes mid-level employees. In a letter to the Fed in February, Warren contended that the delegation of authority has resulted in bank penalties that are too lenient.

Last September, Warren and fellow Democrats on the Senate banking committee opposed Obama's plans to nominate former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to run the Fed, citing Summers' work on behalf of the banking giant Citigroup and his past efforts to deregulate the financial industry. (Obama ended up withdrawing Summers' name from consideration.)

And at Fed chair Janet Yellen's Senate confirmation hearing in November, Warren told Yellen, "I’m concerned that [financial regulatory] responsibilities just aren’t a top priority for the board of governors."

In addition to the two Fed posts Warren and Merkley are concerned about, there are three other openings on the Fed board for which Obama has already nominated candidates. Those nominees are Lael Brainard, a former Treasury official; Jerome Powell, who has been a Fed board member since 2012 and is up for a second term; and Stanley Fischer, the former head of the Bank of Israel, whom the Senate just confirmed. There has been no real opposition by Senate Dems to any of these three nominees.

Can Mental Health Courts Fix California's Prison Overcrowding?

| Wed May 28, 2014 4:00 PM EDT

Passed in 1994, California's "three strikes" law is the nation's harshest sentencing law. Designed to imprison for life anyone who commits three violent crimes, the law has inadvertently resulted in the incarceration of a lot relatively harmless people, for a long time and at great public expense. Crimes that have earned people life sentences: Stealing a dollar in loose change from a car, breaking into a soup kitchen to steal food, stealing a jack from the open window of a tow truck, and even stealing two pairs of children's shoes from Ross Dress for Less. The law is one reason that California's prison system is dangerously, and unconstitutionally, overcrowded. More than 4,000 people in the prison system are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes.

In 2012, with corrections costs consuming ever more of the state budget, the voters in the state had had enough, and they approved a reform measure that would spring many of these low-level offenders from a lifetime of costly confinement. By August of last year, more than 1,000 inmates had their life sentences changed and were released; recidivisim rates for this group has also been extremely low. But further progress in the reform effort is being stymied by one thorny problem: Nearly half of the inmates serving time in California prisons suffer from a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. So far, judges have been reluctant to let these folks out of their life sentences.

A new report from Stanford Law School's Three Strikes project notes that the number of mentally ill prisoners denied relief from a life sentence is three times larger than those without a brain disease. The disparity largely stems from the fact that judges and juries tend to give people with brain diseases much harsher sentences to begin with.

Once in prison, their illnesses go untreated, and the prison conditions exacerbate their behavioral symptoms. As a result, they are at greater risk of getting in trouble for breaking prison rules and being sanctioned with severe disciplinary measures, including solitary confinement—a vicious cycle that can make their symptoms even worse, getting them in even more trouble. A long record of rule-breaking is one thing judges consider when weighing a request to reduce a life sentence under three-strikes reform, and a reason so many mentally ill people have been denied resentencing.

All of these factors are now driving a push in California to work harder to ensure that people with brain diseases don't end up in the correctional system in the first place. Led by State Senator Darrell Steinberg and Stanford law professors who published the new report, the effort includes a call for more investment in mental health courts that focus on treatment rather than punishment. California currently has 40 such courts in 27 counties, and people like Steinberg think they should be expanded state-wide thanks to their effectiveness and cost-savings.

In 2006, Santa Clara County calculated $20 million in savings from its mental health court's success in keeping mentally ill people out of prisons. Sacramento County saw the cost of keeping mentally ill people out of traditional courts fall 88 percent thanks to its mental health court. Other research has shown that the specialized courts also keep mentally ill people from cycling back into the justice system. Mentally ill people in Michigan's mental health courts commit new crimes at a rate 300 percent lower than those who weren't in those courts.

But money isn't the only reason Steinberg wants to see mental health courts expanded. He notes in the Stanford report that this new approach "saves lives from being forsaken." He invokes the moral cost of failing to treat sick people with compassion, and the tragedy of the lost human potential that occurs when the only place for a person with a brain disease today is in a prison.

Watch the video directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Kattie Galloway of Loteria Films (above) about the mental health courts that makes his point and shows just how powerful such venues can be in reclaiming lives and helping sick people return to normal functioning in the community. 

All charts courtesy of Stanford Law School's Three Strikes project

This Pharmacist Is One of Greg Abbott's Biggest Donors. Here's Why.

| Wed May 28, 2014 12:27 PM EDT
Texas Attorney General and GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Greg Abbott

Greg Abbott, the Republican attorney general of Texas, has many of the usual suspects funding his gubernatorial campaign: Energy tycoons, construction company magnates, leveraged buyout moguls, sports team owners. But one of his biggest backers hails from an industry not typically known for bankrolling political campaigns. J. Richard "Richie" Ray is the owner of a compounding pharmacy, one of those loosely regulated entities that have been mixing up lethal injection drug cocktails for prisons as these pharmaceuticals have become harder and harder to obtain. According to a new report from the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, Ray, the owner of Richie's Specialty Pharmacy in Conroe, Texas, has given Abbott $350,000 to help him defeat democratic challenger Wendy Davis. 

Ray's big investment in Abbott comes as death row inmates and good-government groups are trying to force Texas to disclose the supplier of its lethal injection drugs, thought to be a compounding pharmacy. The pharmacies themselves are under fire for selling tainted and mislabled medicine that has killed dozens of people in recent years. During Abbott's tenure as AG, he has already taken on one Texas compounder, ApotheCure, after three people in Oregon died after taking painkillers from the pharmacy that were eight times more potent than the label indicated. (In 2012, Abbott settled state civil charges against the company.) Last summer, tainted medicine from an Austin compounding pharmacy caused blood infections in 17 people; two deaths are suspected to be related to the products, which are still under investigation.

Abbott is also in the middle of a pitched legal battle over whether the state has to identify the supplier of its lethal injection drugs. Over the past several years, international pharma companies have started refusing to sell execution drugs, including pentobarbital, to US prisons for use in lethal injections, and the EU has banned their export. This has left state prisons desperate to find replacement drugs to continue moving the machinery of death. After several states were caught illegally importing the drugs from abroad, state officials have tried obtaining their execution drugs from compounding pharmacies, which can legally mix them up but that have been plagued with problems like those in Texas. Defense lawyers have argued that their condemned clients have a right to know what they're going to be injected with to ensure that the executions will not violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and they've cited the well-documented problems with drugs produced by compounders in their challenges. The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma only reinforced those claims.

In October, in response to a formal request under the state's open-records law, staff who handle such requests in the AG's office said Texas law required disclosure of the execution drug supplier, a move that resulted in the exposure of Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy as the state's lethal injection supplier. Woodlands promptly quit supplying execution drugs. As a result, the state is now fighting disclosure of the name of its new supplier, and Abbott is caught in the middle, with his lawyers arguing in state and federal court that the name of the pharmacy doesn't have to be disclosed, even as his open-records staff say it does.

In the midst of all this controversy, Richie Ray has become a major donor Abbott's campaign. He gave $100,000 in June 2013, just before the state bought several doses of compounded pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. (By comparison, Ray has given only a little more than $40,000 to Rick Perry's campaigns.) Ray's pharmacy is not supplying execution drugs to the state, according to the Texans for Public Justice report, apparently because his pharmacy isn't certified as a "sterile" facility. However, Richie's is a member of the Professional Compounding Centers of America (PCCA), a Houston-based national trade group that not only owns the lab that tested some of the state's compounded execution drugs for purity but also sold Woodlans the raw materials to make one of the drugs.

Ray himself is active in fighting tougher regulation of compounding pharmacies. He's the director of the Texas Pharmacy Association PAC and chairman of the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists' federal PAC. His employees are the top donors to the campaign of Sen. John Barasso (R-WY), a doctor and the Senate's leading defender of compounding pharmacies like ApotheCure.

Given the massive conflicts between his current job and one of his biggest campaign contributors, Abbott can only hope that defense lawyers manage to drag out the legal battles over lethal injection long enough for him to get elected in November.

Is Obama a Realist, Isolationist, Humanitarian Interventionist, or Drone-Dropping Hawk?

| Wed May 28, 2014 11:39 AM EDT

Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy has become much more challenging. In a post-bipolar world where nonstate actors pose real threats and disrupters (good and bad) are everywhere, the issues are knottier and unforeseen developments often yield difficult options. In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush chose not to come to terms with this fundamental change. Instead, he opted for a blunderbuss policy dominated by a misguided invasion of Iraq. President Barack Obama inherited a helluva cleanup job. And as he had handled the details—such as winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—he has had tried to articulate an overall strategy. His latest stab at this was the speech he delivered to West Point graduates this morning.

Early in the address, Obama noted, "you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan." The young men and women before him cheered. It was a poignant moment. Then Obama proceeded to outline a larger vision. He summed up his stance in these lines:

[S]ince George Washington served as commander in chief, there have been those who warned against foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being. Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans.

A different view, from interventionists on the left and right, says we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America's willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America's failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.

Each side can point to history to support its claims. But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. If nuclear materials are not secure, that could pose a danger in American cities. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked—in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world—will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military.

Beyond these narrow rationales, I believe we have a real stake—an abiding self-interest—in making sure our children grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped, where individuals aren't slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political beliefs. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative—it also helps keep us safe.

But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures—without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: "War is mankind's most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men."

This is not new. Obama chooses no specific camp. He does not truck with so-called realists and isolationists who do not want the United States to be involved with overseas conflicts that do not directly and immediately threaten the United States. Nor does he side with interventionists who call for US military engagement in trouble spots around the world. Cognizant of the costs of war (money, lives, and more), he does not want to overcommit the United States. Citing the costs of nonaction and the interconnectedness of today's world, he does not want to remain on the global sidelines. He's certainly no neocon eager to deploy US military resources overseas to intervene in Syria or to up the ante with Russia regarding Ukraine. (Obama announced he would boost efforts to help Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, deal with refugees and cross-border terrorists from Syria, and "ramp up" support for elements of the Syrian opposition "who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator." He said he would keep working with the IMF and allies to bolster Ukraine and its economy and isolate Russia.) But Obama did defend his use of drone strikes. He noted, "In taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield." (Yet his administration has not always met this standard.)

For years, Obama has been trying to form and sell a balanced approach that justifies certain military interventions and limits others—while redefining national security interests to include climate change and other matters. That's a tough task. The world is not a balanced place. It's likely that Obama's handling of foreign policy will continue to be judged on a case-by-case basis and less on the establishment of an integrated doctrine. Given the global challenges of this era, a grand plan may not be realistic.