Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 28, 2014

Fri Mar. 28, 2014 7:10 AM PDT

Spc. Sergio Depena and Pfc. John Conley, Company B, 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts Army National Guard, carry out a fire mission using 60 mm mortars at Joint Base Dix-McGuaire-Lakehurst, NJ on March 21, 2014. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class James C. Lally, Massachusetts National Guard Public Affairs /Released)

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In Defense of Scott Brown, Carpetbagger

| Fri Mar. 28, 2014 4:41 AM PDT
Illustration: Thomas Nast/Library of Congress; Scott Brown: Seamas Culligan/ZUMA

Scott Brown has a carpetbagging problem. On Monday, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts—who is now running for Senate in New Hampshire—defended his Granite State bona fides by taking a page from Lisa Simpson: "Do I have the best credentials? Probably not. 'Cause, you know, whatever."

At this point, it's the rare Brown story that doesn't at least allude to the dreaded C-word. "Carpetbagger or Comeback Kid?" asked the Washington Examiner's Rebecca Berg. "Scott Brown's first hurdle in the Granite State will be addressing the carpetbagging charge," argued US News & World Report's David Catanese. Respondents to a March poll from Suffolk University, a plurality of whom disapproved of Brown, used words like "carpetbagger" and "interloper" to describe the ex-senator. His opponent in the Republican primary, former Sen. Bob Smith, has even offered to buy Brown a road map to the state—although Smith has run for Senate in Florida twice in the last decade.

If Brown wants to go back to Washington next winter, he should probably come up with a better response than "whatever." But his critics in Washington have it all wrong. For more than a century, carpetbaggers have gotten a bad rap for all the wrong reasons.

5 Things You Need to Know About Obama's NSA Proposal

| Fri Mar. 28, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

On Thursday, the White House released its proposal to end the National Security Agency's bulk collection program, which hoovers up the phone records of millions of Americans. Currently, the NSA stores Americans' phone metadata (which doesn't include the content of calls) for five years. Under the President's new proposal, phone companies will instead be tasked with holding onto this data, which will they will store for 18 months. Additionally, the government would only be allowed to query these records if it gets approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, though the president's plan includes an exemption for as-yet-unspecified "emergency" situations. Here are five more things you need to know about the President's proposal: 

1. It only addresses the bulk collection of phone records. 

The collection of telephone records has gotten a lot of attention from Congress—but documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revealed many other controversial surveillance programs. Last October, for instance, the Washington Post reported that the NSA had broken Google and Yahoo's encryption and was siphoning millions of their users records into the agency's data centers. In a press call on Thursday with civil liberties groups, privacy experts argued that President Obama should make additional reforms that address these other alleged surveillance programs. "Our phone records are sensitive, but so are our financial records, Internet information, email data," said Michelle Richardson, the ACLU's legislative counsel. "It reveals who we know, where we go, what we do, what we think and what we believe, and those sorts of records need just as much protection."

2. Phone companies aren't too psyched about Obama's plan, so the administration might compensate them. 

On Thursday, Verizon announced that it opposes aspects of the plan. "If Verizon receives a valid request for business records, we will respond in a timely way, but companies should not be required to create, analyze or retain records for reasons other than business purposes," Randal Milch, Verizon's general counsel and executive vice president for public policy, said in a statement. In a call with reporters on Thurday, White House officials emphasized that the administration has been meeting with phone companies to come up with a workable solution, which could potentially include compensating them for their efforts. "I certainly would envision, consistent with what the government does today with respect to compensating phone companies and others for their production of records in response to lawful court process, I think we would see a similar approach," said a senior administration official. 

3. The plan is still missing a lot of key details. 

According to a press release issued by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York School of Law on Thursday, the Obama administration has yet to "identify the standard that the government must meet to obtain a court order, beyond a vague reference to 'national security concerns.' Nor does the fact sheet identify any limits on the government's ability to keep and search the records it obtains, which will necessarily include large amounts of information about innocent Americans." In the White House press, a reporter asked senior administration officials how long the NSA could keep querying data once it had obtained a court order. An official responded: "I'm not going to presuppose what that time period would be right now." 

4. Obama could end the program now if he wanted to, but he's waiting for Congress to act.

President Obama could end the NSA's bulk collection program without congressional approval, but he's choosing not to. A senior White House official said on Thursday, "The President believes the government should no longer collect and hold the bulk [telephone] metadata. He's also got a responsibility as commander-in-chief to ensure that we maintain the capabilities of this program, and he wants to see it done in a way that also responds to the concerns that have been identified and to create a program and have a discussion about it, and have legislation that would promote confidence in our intelligence-gathering activities." 

5. There are competing bills to end the program. Privacy advocates hate one of them. 

On Thursday, privacy advocates took issue with the NSA reform bill introduced this week by members of the House intelligence committee. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), ends the bulk collection program, but doesn't require strict judicial review before the NSA queries phone companies for their customers' records. President Obama's proposal, in contrast, does require this review. The ACLU's Richardson notes that the Rogers-Ruppersberger plan would allow the FBI and other agencies to directly demand information from companies. "It's not a fix, it's not even a half-measure," she said. Privacy advocates support the USA Freedom Act, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which includes more civil liberties protections. 

Donald Rumsfeld: Up Close and Creepy

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 12:49 PM PDT

Not too long into Errol Morris' new documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, the viewer learns almost all he or she needs to know about the former defense secretary who helped President George W. Bush lead the nation into war in Iraq. After a short recap of the initial US military action in Afghanistan following the horrific September 11 attacks, Morris notes that a "confusion" set in, with many Americans believing Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was involved in 9/11. Morris puts this to Rumsfeld during the Q&A that makes up the spine of the film. Rumsfeld, in his familiar know-it-all way, dismisses the premise: "I don't think the American people were confused about that." Morris, who is not on screen, counters by citing a 2003 poll showing that 69 percent of Americans said it was "likely" that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the assault. Rumsfeld responds, "I don't remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that, nor do I recall anyone believing that."

Really? Rumsfeld is not acknowledging a known known. Within hours of the Al Qaeda attack, according to now-public memos, Rumsfeld was asking if Saddam Hussein could be hit in response, and for weeks afterward, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, repeatedly said during administration meetings that the Iraqi leader might have been behind the 9/11 plot. As Michael Isikoff and I noted in Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Wolfowitz sent memos to Rumsfeld asserting that Saddam may have played a critical role.

Morris doesn't cover any of this, but he exposes Rumsfeld in a different and effective way—with Rumsfeld's own words. Immediately after Rumsfeld tells Morris he has no clue how any American got the impression Saddam was tied to 9/11, Morris inserts video from a Rumsfeld press conference at the Pentagon in early February 2003. Saddam had recently declared that he possessed no weapons of mass destruction and had no relationship with Al Qaeda. A reporter asks Rumsfeld to respond. "Abraham Lincoln was short," Rumsfeld says curtly—and no more. The reporter, not satisfied with this all-too-cute answer, presses Rumsfeld for more, and the secretary obliges: "How does one respond to that? It's a continuous pattern. It's the local liar…He almost never, rarely tells the truth."

With this response, Rumsfeld was certainly bolstering the notion that Saddam was part of the 9/11 scheme. Yet now he plays dumb. And, thus, nothing else he says in the documentary can be taken at face value. This is a fellow who either is not as smart as he thinks or not perceptive enough to handle the hard truths.

Of course, after the invasion of Iraq—which Rumsfeld had sold on false pretenses—it was clear that Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush-Cheney crew had failed to prepare adequately for the occupation, in what was one of the dumbest moves in US military history. In this film, Rumsfeld hardly comes to terms with all that. (Ditto the 100,000-plus civilian Iraqi deaths caused by the war—though he does choke up while talking about one American soldier wounded in Iraq who pulled through.) That's no surprise. Neither is Rumsfeld's cocky attitude—which was often on full display during his matinee press conferences at the Pentagon. Yet throughout the engaging film, Rumsfeld, as he did during his decades in government, hides behind a creepy sort of profundity. At one point, Morris cites Rumsfeld's belief in the notion that "if you wish for peace, prepare for war" and notes that "you can use that to justify anything." Rumsfeld responds by citing one of his "Rumsfeld rules": "All generalizations are false—including this one." He then offers a thin smile, chuckles, and adds, "There it is."

Yes, the zen of Donald Rumsfeld, which is merely camouflage for stupid mistakes that caused mayhem and death. That much is certainly known.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 27, 2014

Thu Mar. 27, 2014 7:01 AM PDT

Spc. George Morales-Lebreault, a competitor in the 302nd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade's best warrior competition tosses a dummy grenade during an obsticle course March 23, 2014 at Fort Devens, Mass. Eleven soldiers competed for the title of "best warrior" in the 302nd MEB. The top non-commissioned officer and junior enlisted soldier advanced to the next tier of the competition at the 412th Theater Engineer Command. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Koster)

Russia's New Dolphin Navy Is No Match for Our Dolphin Navy

| Wed Mar. 26, 2014 12:43 PM PDT

If you are concerned that Russia's acquisition of the Ukrainian military's elite dolphin attack squad could spell the end of America's reign as the most powerful country on Earth, fear not: Not only are we the home of jazz, blue jeans, and the greatest basketball team ever assembled, we also have been training dolphins to fight our wars find and detect sea mines since 1960.

Navy

 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 26, 2014

Wed Mar. 26, 2014 7:07 AM PDT

An U.S. Special Forces soldier assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan fires a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle system after receiving small-arms fire during a clearance of Denasaro Kelay village in Mizan district, Zabul province, Afghanistan on March 8, 2014. 3rd SOK, assisted by USSF soldiers, conducted the clearance to disrupt insurgent movement in the area. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Sara Wakai/Released)

Sen. Feinstein's Pro-NSA Bill Has Hit a Snag: Obama

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 2:24 PM PDT

Since Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA is scooping up the phone records of law-abiding Americans in bulk, the program has had a stalwart defender in Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). She has supported the program's continuation as recently as last week, criticized a judge who ruled it may be unconstitutional, and pushed a bill through the Senate Intelligence Committee to codify its existence, with some reforms. But now, her bill may be dead in the water. Late Monday, news broke that President Obama is expected to propose ending the program as it currently exists. In response, Feinstein issued the following statement

"I believe the president’s plan is a worthy effort. I have said before that I am open to reforming the call records program as long as any changes meet our national security needs and address privacy concerns, and that any changes continue to provide the government with the means to protect against future terrorist attack."

The way the bulk collection program works now, the NSA systematically collects metadata from the phone calls of millions of Americans. (Metadata, which includes phone numbers and call dates, is highly revealing, but it doesn't detail the contents of conversations.) The NSA retains that data for five years. According to the New York Times, the Administration's new proposal will recommend that phone companies hold onto this data instead of the NSA. Phone companies are only required to retain this data for 18 months. In order to get specific records, the NSA will have to get permission from a judge. In January, civil liberties advocates told Mother Jones that they considered ending the bulk collection program a top priority in reforming NSA surveillance. 

Last week, Feinstein said she would consider reforms to the bulk collection program that "preserve the operational effectiveness of the call records program," but said it should continue. In December, when DC District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA's phone collection program was likely illegal, calling it, "almost Orwellian," Feinstein quickly denounced the ruling. "Those of us who support the call records program do so with a sincere belief that it, along with other programs, is constitutional and helps keep the country safe from attack," she wrote.

She also introduced the FISA Improvements Act which was quickly approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee in October 2013. The bill would require more public reporting and court review, while codifying the program's existence, largely in its current form. More than 50 civil liberties and public interest organizations signed a letter opposing the bill in December.

But thanks to Obama's new announcement, Feinstein's proposal may be dead in the water: "Senator Feinstein’s FISA reform bill is a nonstarter now that the President has confirmed his commitment to end the bulk collection program," says Alan Butler, the appellate advocacy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. In contrast, two other bills—the USA FREEDOM Act and the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act, which was introduced on Tuesday by Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.)—would both end the bulk collection program in its current form. Feinstein said on Tuesday she plans to schedule a hearing on both the president’s proposal and the new bill from the House Intelligence Committee. 

On Tuesday, Glenn Greenwald, writing for the Intercept, harshly criticized "pro-NSA Democrats" for following Obama in his support for NSA surveillance. "They have spent the last 10 months defending the NSA (i.e., defending Obama) by insisting that the NSA metadata program is both reasonable and necessary to Keep Us Safe™," he wrote. Earlier this month, Snowden called Feinstein hypocritical for continuing to support NSA surveillance while denouncing the CIA for searching Senate Intelligence Committee computers. "Suddenly it's a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them," he said. 

Washington Football Team Starts Charity, Is Absolved of Racism

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 12:51 PM PDT

Good news out of Washington: Local NFL team owner Dan Snyder reflected on the challenges facing Native Americans, and, in a letter released Monday, promises to change the team's n—

Wait, sorry. Snyder actually defends the team's name as "rooted in pride." After traveling the country and hearing from tribal leaders, though, Snyder says the real problem is that keeping the team's racial slur name is just too small an honor. "It's not enough to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans," he writes. "We must do more." Enter the Original Americans Foundation.

The foundation is meant to "provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities." Its work has already started: Snyder writes that the charity purchased a backhoe for the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska and donated coats and shoes to several other tribes. "Because I'm so serious about the importance of this cause, I began our efforts quietly and respectfully, away from the spotlight," Snyder notes in the four-page letter, which was quietly and respectfully posted on the front page of the team's website, away from the spotlight.

See the whole letter, which Indian Country Today called "rife with self-satisfaction and misdirection," below:

 

This Tea Party Leader Seems Pretty Confused About the Hobby Lobby Case

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 11:23 AM PDT
Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin

When the tea party movement first emerged, with its laser focus on fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget, it never really distinguished itself with a deep understanding of economic issues or the operations of government. Now that it's joined the culture wars and shifted into divisive social issues it once eschewed, the movement doesn't seem to have any better handle on law or policy than it did when it was warning President Obama to "keep your hands off my Medicare."

Case in point: the Tea Party Patriots effort to insert itself into the religious freedom wars surrounding the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. On Tuesday, the group held a rally at the US Supreme Court to "stand up for the right to choose," during the oral arguments in the biggest case on the docket this year, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby. The case involves a for-profit corporation with 13,000 employees and $3 billion in annual revenue that's arguing the Obamacare requirement that the company's health insurance plan cover most contraception violates its religious freedom. At the core of the case is the dubious contention that a corporation can hold religious beliefs.

Calling the event a "Freedom of Choice" rally, the tea partiers are co-opting the language of the reproductive rights activists who are arrayed on the other side of the case. On the Tea Party Patriots' website, the groups insist that the case "isn't about what Hobby Lobby, Inc. is or isn't willing to provide to their employees. This is about everyone's right to practice their religion without the government stepping in and telling them what to do."

It's obvious from Tea Party Patriots' simplified description of the Hobby Lobby lawsuit and other statements that the group's leaders are pretty clueless about the case (and the law). In a press release today, Martin claimed:

It is quite astonishing that the U.S. government, after forcing the health care law on the American people who overwhelmingly opposed it, has taken the further action of bringing a beloved family business to court to force them to violate their constitutional rights. The owners of Hobby Lobby have said repeatedly that they have no desire to make health care decisions for their employees. Why is the government forcing them to do so? 

Emphasis mine. In fact, Hobby Lobby is in court precisely because its owners want to make health care decisions for employees—by denying insurance coverage for contraception to which it has religious objections. And the government has never forced a "beloved family business" to violate its constitutional rights. Leaving aside the fact that it's not legally possible for a business to violate its own constitutional rights, there's nothing in the Affordable Care Act that requires a company to provide health insurance for its employees, much less a plan that clashes with the religious beliefs of its owners.

As Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has discussed extensively here, while the ACA includes an individual mandate that requires people to purchase insurance, there's nothing in the law that requires their employers to provide it. But if a company does provide a plan, it must cover most forms of birth control, including the emergency contraception Plan B and Ella. If Hobby Lobby wants to avoid having its insurance plan cover these sorts of drugs, it can simply drop its insurance plan, pay a modest tax, and let employees buy their own plans on the insurance exchanges. (To be nice, the company could raise their pay to cover the cost of the insurance.) As government social programs go, the ACA has a pretty light touch.

The tea party's framing of the issues in Hobby Lobby reflect the movement's attempt to square its libertarian roots with its active courtship of the religious right. Not long after hitting the national political stage, fledgling and underfunded groups like Tea Party Patriots actively sought out evangelicals, particularly their deep-pocketed donor base. In turn, the "teavangelicals," as Christian activist Ralph Reed dubbed them, demanded that GOP candidates, and the tea party itself, not ignore their pet issues like abortion and gay marriage in favor of more libertarian budget-related issues, and the culture wars were back in full flower.

Mark Meckler, a Tea Party Patriots co-founder who has since left the group, was initially adamant that the tea party would not engage in fights over social issues like the ones in the Hobby Lobby case. By the tea party's heyday in 2010, he was telling a religious-right conference organized by Reed that tea partiers' motivating force was not the national debt but anger over "this idea of separation of church and state. We're angry about the removal of God from the public square." Tuesday's rally at the Supreme Court is evidence that the social issues the tea party initially vowed to avoid is really all that's keeping what's left of the movement alive.