Political MoJo

This Is Rick Perry's Mugshot

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 7:02 PM EDT

Rick Perry was booked today on abuse of power charges that look pretty flimsy.

Say what you will about his awful retrograde conservative politics, but Rick Perry is a handsome devil.

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Amnesty International's Latest Hot Spot? Ferguson.

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 5:06 PM EDT

Amnesty International is best known for monitoring human rights conditions in places like Afghanistan and China—while active in the United States, it rarely makes headlines here. That's why the sight of yellow-clad Amnesty activists walking the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, is attracting so much attention: It marks the first time an Amnesty delegation has been dispatched to monitor a human rights crisis unfolding on American soil.

Margaret Huang, deputy executive director of campaigns and programs for Amnesty USA, was in Ferguson earlier this week for what she called a "support mission" and says that Amnesty came at the request of the community. Huang and her colleagues did field trainings to educate protesters on their rights and how to respond to police. "The goal was not necessarily to produce a report, which is what Amnesty has typically done, but just to make sure things have been examined from a human rights angle and for people to understand international legal obligations," Huang says. She says the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive; the police, however, haven't been as welcoming. On Monday night, police forced Amnesty observers out of the protest area at gunpoint.

Amnesty began reporting on human rights in the United States in 1998, and it has since become just as vocal about conditions here as it is elsewhere. The organization's 2013 report on the US is a laundry list of alleged human rights transgressions, including solitary confinement, detention of prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, drone strikes, and police brutality. This tweet about the situation in Ferguson sums up the organization's angle:

While the nature of Amnesty's mission in Ferguson is unprecedented in the United States, it's not the first time delegations have been on the ground in times of crisis. After Hurricane Katrina hit, teams went to New Orleans to interview residents, with the purpose of producing a report detailing how government was failing in its recovery efforts. Amnesty also helped organize protests and raise awareness leading up to Troy Davis' execution in 2011.

To find the closest parallel to what Amnesty is doing in Missouri, though, you have to look abroad. Huang says that Amnesty's work during Turkey's massive anti-government protests in 2013 most resembles the Ferguson mission. In Istanbul, activists gave medical assistance to injured protesters and observed the violent clashes involving protesters, police, and sometimes members of the press. They ultimately produced a huge report detailing the numerous human rights abuses carried out by Turkish police. Their concerns then—police brutality, harassment and detainment of the press—were also articulated in a statement about Ferguson.

What's happening in Ferguson and what happened across Turkey last year aren't the same, of course. But the similarities between the two situations—and the fact that Amnesty is in Ferguson in the first place—are, for many, making what's unfolding now even more troubling. Huang didn't say how long the delegation plans to stay in Ferguson, calling the situation "very fluid," but Amnesty USA's executive director, Steven Hawkins, is there now.

The Man Who Ran Contra Propaganda for Reagan Is Guatemala’s New DC Lobbyist

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 2:45 PM EDT

In late July, with child migrants still surging across the US-Mexico border, President Obama met with Central American leaders to discuss a response to the crisis. Not satisfied with Obama's plans, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina took his agenda to the media, writing a Guardian op-ed criticizing the United States for the lasting legacy of both the Cold War and the drug war in his country.

Around the same time, Guatemala hired a lobbyist to help push its interests in Washington, DC. Given Pérez Molina's sharp criticism of the United States' history in the region, his choice—former Reagan official and noted Cold War propagandist Otto Reich—was a shocker.

If you've forgotten about Reich, check out this 2001 profile from The American Prospect, this 2002 New Yorker piece, or his National Security Archive page. Highlights of his Latin American misadventures include:

  • Running the Reagan-era Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (OPD), which, as historian Greg Grandin wrote in Empire's Workshop, "was officially charged with implementing a 'new, nontraditional' approach to 'defining the terms of the public discussion on Central American policy.'" What it actually did was work to ensure US support of the Nicaraguan Contras in their offensive against the Sandinistas.
  • Overseeing OPD's "white propaganda" program, which placed pro-Contra op-eds in the mainstream media without acknowledging their links to the Reagan administration.
  • Confronting and intimidating those journalists Reich believed were sympathetic with the Sandinistas or the Salvadoran rebels. This included a memorable trip to the NPR office in DC—Reich referred to NPR as "Moscow on the Potomac"—during which he alerted reporters that OPD was listening to and transcribing their Central American reporting.
  • Helping write the Helms-Burton Act (which tightened the Cuban embargo) as well as lobbying for Bacardi to eliminate Cuban trademark rights so the rum maker could pilfer Cuba's official Havana Club brand. (Reich is Cuban American and staunchly anti-Castro.)

Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but hiring someone with Reich's history in the region is probably not the best way to, as the lobbying disclosure form puts it, "develop a strategy to move forward on the change of narrative from Guatemala to Washington, DC, allowing representatives in the North American political parties that are willing to abandon the reference to Guatemala of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the last century, and are eager to talk about the present and future of Guatemala of the 21st century." (The rest of the form is embedded below.)

Nor is it the best way for fellow cold warrior Pérez Molina to avoid references to his role as a military leader during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Guatemalans, many of them indigenous Mayans, with assistance from the United States. But then again, trying to make sense of the country's politics can be futile. "Just as you think you understand," University of California-Santa Cruz prof Susanne Jonas once wrote, Guatemala will "show you that you understand nothing at all."

 

(h/t CEPR's The Americas Blog)

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 19, 2014

Tue Aug. 19, 2014 10:21 AM EDT

A US Marine shouts out to his crew during a training mission in the Atlantic. (US Marine Corps photo taken by Lance Cpl. Alex W. Mitchel)

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.

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.

 

 

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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