Justice Department employees at an event with Attorney General Eric Holder (left) and Michelle Obama. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information—especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources.”
—Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy
When John Lindsay was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1958, the Republican lawyer from Manhattan arrived on Capitol Hill as a man on a mission. “Often alone on the House floor,” recalled Nat Hentoff, “Lindsay wielded the Bill of Rights against its enemies.”
Lindsay was absolutely determined to reinvigorate the bill of rights, especially the First Amendment. After a decade of “red scares” and McCarthyism, he spoke up for dissidents. He hailed the right to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances. And he championed a free press as the essential underpinning of a free society.
Lindsay developed a reputation for disregarding party lines. He was a Republican, but if the Republican president was wrong, he would not allow party ties to temper his objections. And if the members of his caucus disregarded civil liberties, they were more likely to get an earful from Lindsay than from the Democrats.
Around the time that Lindsay was elected mayor of New York, California Democrat Don Edwards, a former FBI agent, arrived to take up the fight. For three decades, Edwards checked and balanced not just Republicans but Democrats who failed to recognize the rights of citizens and the essential role of a watchdog press. When his Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives went after reporter Daniel Schorr for revealing details of an intelligence committee report, Edwards ripped his colleagues. “The freedom of the press is very much involved here,” the congressman declared. “By bringing it up this way and naming Mr. Schorr, there is a very chilling effect on a reporter’s right to receive classified information.”
We remember Lindsay and Edwards because of the standard they set. They understood that the defense of the Bill of Rights in general, and freedom of the press in particular, must never be compromised by partisanship.
That’s why it was so very important when, after it was revealed that the Department of Justice had obtained the phone records of Associated Press journalists, both Patrick Leahy and Bob Goodlatte spoke up.
Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, come from different political parties, different ideological perspectives and different experiences.
Yet, they essentially agreed after learning that federal prosecutors stood accused of secretly obtaining two months’ worth of telephone records from the journalists—in what the news agency described Monday as “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”
Both men are well aware that the Justice Department was pursuing alleged leaks by a government official, and that national-security issues had been raised. But they are also aware of the guidelines established in the Watergate era to balance national security and First Amendment concerns. And in the spirit of Lindsay—who said, “Those who suppress freedom always do so in the name of law and order”—Leahy and Goodlatte have both recognized an essential duty to defend press freedom.
The wrangling over government intrusion on what is supposed to be a free press is as old as the Republic. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson clashed over the issue before the Bill of Rights was ten years old, and no decade has passed since then without a dispute. As recently as 2008, the FBI apologized to The Washington Post and The New York Times when it was revealed that the agency had improperly obtained the phone records of reporters in Indonesia.
Even if the fight is an old one, however, it is essential that officials with oversight authority move immediately when it rises anew.
That’s why the rapid responses of Goodlatte and Leahy were as encouraging as they were necessary.
Both Leahy and Goodlatte raised real concerns and demanded real answers from Department of Justice officials who seem to have forgotten that a free press must be free from arbitrary and overreaching government surveillance.
“Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is very concerning,” said Goodlatte. “The House Judiciary Committee will thoroughly investigate this issue and will also ask Attorney General Eric Holder pointed questions about it at Wednesday’s oversight hearing.”
Goodlatte’s statement was valid—and important.
But it was even more important that Leahy voiced his parallel concern.
“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information—especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,” said the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. “I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government’s explanation.”
Attorney General Holder’s testimony Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee was hardly revealing, as Holder explained that he had recused himself from the matter.
But that can’t be the end of the inquiry—or the response to it.
Strikingly, Leahy was backed up in his call for answers and action by an angry Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who described the Justice Department’s seizure of the phone records as “inexcusable” and added, “There’s no way to justify this.” Reid went even further, saying Tuesday, “In my career, I’ve stood consistently for freedom of the press from encroachment by the national security community and will continue to do that. It’s an issue I feel very strongly about and will look further whether more legislative action is needed in this regard to secure freedom of the press.”
What might that mean? With encouragement from the White House, Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is preparing to reintroduce the media shield law that in 2009 died in the Senate. Among other things, the proposed law gives journalists who have been served subpoenas the option of appealing to a federal judge when they don’t want to reveal their sources. It then falls to the jurist—as opposed to the Department of Justice—to determine whether the public interest in a story trumps the government’s demand that sources be revealed,
“This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public’s right to the free flow of information,” argues Schumer. “At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case.”
When the Department of Justice in a Democratic administration is accused of wrongdoing, it is vital that Democratic leaders in Congress step up to ask the tough questions—just as it is vital for Republican members of Congress to be out front to check and balance Republican administrations.
Congressional oversight often comes with a partisan edge, and that’s not entirely inappropriate. Partisanship animates and energizes oversight committees, ensures that inquiries are pursued and rejects bureaucratic responses.
Ultimately, however, congressional oversight is most effective when it comes from members of the party that controls the executive branch. The United States does not have a parliamentary system of government. Rather, our Constitution outlines a separation of powers between the branches of government. The separation was not designed to encourage partisan division but to assure that there would always be a checking and balancing of power—regardless of party affiliation or allegiance.
Intense partisanship often leads members of Congress to “go to their corners.” And rarely has the partisanship been more intense, more bitter, than now.
But Patrick Leahy has rejected the defensive position into which the weakest of partisans collapse. Instead, he has gone into the same checking-and-balancing stance that has been adopted by Bob Goodlatte. This is as it should be. When it comes to defending the freedom of the press, the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees should, regardless of party, regardless of ideology, be positioned firmly and unequivocally on the side of the First Amendment.
Political cartoonists are still powerful provocateurs of people in power. Victor Navasky explains why.
Adolf Hitler once commissioned a book of cartoons responding to British cartoonist, and serial ridiculer, David Low. “What they don’t want to be thought as is an ass, who is a joke,” says Nation publisher emeritus Victor Navasky, about people in power. “These cartoons give rise to jokes, but they’re very serious.” Navasky joins The Cycle to discuss Hitler, Obama, Kissinger and his new book, The Art of Controversy.
Is your world flat? Tom Tomorrow advises: Call detective Tom Friedman!
Chris Christie and Barack Obama inspect the damage from Hurricane Sandy. (Wikimedia Commons/Pete Souza.)
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Last week, as news circulated of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s weight-loss surgery, so did a video in which Christie parodied his own brand—and the fleece he wore day and night during the Hurricane Sandy crisis. In the video, he asks everybody from Morning Joe to Jon Bon Jovi if they’ve seen his now-missing fleece, without which he is powerless, like Iron Man without his suit.
It was, after all, while wearing that infamous fleece that he raced across his state, doling out no-nonsense quips about recovering from the storm. And who can forget the iconic images of Christie and President Obama surveying the wreckage together, finding love, it seemed, in a hopeless place?
Christie seemed genuinely consumed by the unprecedented destruction caused by what the environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben called a “Frankenstorm….stitched together from some spooky combination of the natural and the unnatural.”
And yet, when asked the obvious question—how Christie would address the climate change challenges that contributed to the superstorm and will, undoubtedly, create more in the future—the famously blunt governor said, “Now maybe, in the subsequent months and years, after I get done with trying to rebuild the state and put people back in their homes, I will have the opportunity to ponder the esoteric question of the cause of this storm.”
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
On Wednesday night, I hosted a panel in New York entitled “Sharp: A Discussion of Women and Criticism.” I organized it because over the last few years, I’ve noticed that there is a distinct quality to the experience of being a somewhat opinionated woman, at least in public, and in print. And I wanted to talk to some of the smartest women I know about it. And given the abysmal byline counts one finds at VIDA, and the controversy over Wikipedia naming novelists who are women “women novelists,” and Deborah Copaken Kogan’s piece on her post-feminist life in letters right here at The Nation, there certainly seemed to be an appetite for the discussion in the sphere of books criticism, and even in the arts more generally.
I managed to convince quite the lineup to do the event with me. The other panelists were: Laura Miller (Salon), Ruth Franklin (The New Republic), Parul Sehgal (The New York Times Book Review), Kate Bolick (The Atlantic), Michelle Orange (The Rumpus) and The Nation’s own associate literary editor, Miriam Markowitz. I love all these women’s work. It was an honor just to have them all accept. And as it turns out, they all had some pretty insightful things to say.
We were going to bring you the audio, but technology somehow failed us and left us with a silent loop on the tape. To borrow another panelist’s observation on the snafu: “The patriarchy works in strange ways.”
So I offer my own takeaways below. Of course, we disagreed with each other on certain points. But there were some commonalities:
1. Whenever that VIDA time of year comes around, I always hear that it’s hard for editors to find good women writers, that we’re not around, that we don’t pitch enough. Yet I found there was an embarrassment of riches in that regard. There were a bunch of other women I could have (and should have) asked to be on this panel. Perhaps I just skew my reading towards women, but given that I usually read journalism without much regard to byline, I don’t think that’s quite it. Point being: why all these women aren’t fighting editors off with sticks is beyond me.
2. I asked all the panelists to talk about women critics “of the past” (“the past” being construed very loosely) that they admired. Kate Bolick raised the question of whether it wasn’t a kind of over-determined gendering itself to admire and relate to mostly other women critics. This had actually been a question bothering me while I organized the thing; were the women I asked going to be annoyed at being identified, explicitly, as “women critics”? (This has been one of the items at issue in the Wikipedia debate, with novelists more generally.) I can only be honest and say that yes, I am more interested in how women have navigated this position, because I think there is a distinct quality to that experience.
3. It would be good if we stopped confusing “equality” of perspective in this debate—in terms of sheer byline counts—with “sameness” of perspective. Parul Sehgal made the observation that women and people of color have something interesting to say about how power operates. Which, I think, does not quite reduce to other kinds of people being “better” critics than white men, but it does mean that more than white men’s perspectives are important, and even, dare I say, vital, to having the full range of critical conversation. It often bugs me that we call parity of bylines a “diversity problem.” In my opinion, it isn’t just “fairness” that demands the inclusion of more perspectives. It’s a problem of quality, too.
4. As far as representation goes, the problem isn’t just with the publications that assign writing. It also has to do with the way books are marketed today, Miriam Markowitz pointed out, and particularly how they are marketed to women. In the publishing world, it seems, women are still easily caught by images that evoke either feminine douche commercials (flowy dresses, fields) or ersatz Sex and the City ads (martinis and shoes). It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with any of these images, but the idea that they appeal to women wholesale has always struck me as misguided. Like everyone else, women tend to read books by authors they admire, or books that look interesting in the jacket copy, I assume. Though perhaps publishers have an army of book marketers who say otherwise.
5. There are two economies at work in the book world, Laura Miller observed: one where books are literally bought and sold, and the other where they accumulate prestige. And writers, even publishers, are often not good at articulating where “success” is allocated between them. To venture a slight criticism of the Kogan article which appeared here at The Nation, that tension was pretty evident in it. Kogan’s memoir, Shutterbabe, was a bestseller, but it was the treatment by critics that left her with a sour taste in her mouth. Except—and this is, I think, what critics hate to face sometimes—the truth is that a good book will long outlast the reviews.
6. Ruth Franklin noted that, in a way, all this VIDA stuff is much larger than just the book world. We live in a gendered society, and that is going to color how we talk about just about everything, books included. Which of course raises a sort of chicken-and-egg question. I guess my perspective on this is that diversifying the people who write for you is an easy, measurable thing to do in the face of a gendered society, in a way that, say, expanding a critical standard to embrace more voices in art is not.
7. Michelle Orange offered that she felt that women often have a harder time establishing authority in criticism, citing Virginia Woolf on this point. Which I, personally, agree with. I spend a lot of time reading biographies of women critics along with their work, and I’m often struck by the kind of firestorms they can start by simply dissenting from the popular view, however skillfully or convincingly. I completely garbled a question about this at the panel itself, but to an extent it’s always seemed to me that the blowback you can get as a woman of fairly strong opinions is itself gendered. And concomitantly, as someone of color trying to make such a statement, racialized.
I’ve posted here about this before. It’s related to Rebecca Solnit’s famed “Men Who Explain Things” phenomenon, but somewhat distinct from it. The best way I can put it is in old left terms: sometimes just a claim to be able to say something of general application—say, to pronounce on the value of a book—is, consciously or unconsciously, received by those in power as a challenge to their authority. The thing about having the kind of power conferred by gender or race is that it becomes almost just a fact of the universe, a given, and someone mounting a challenge to that—saying, for example, that Philip Roth just doesn’t speak to your experience that well—can inspire, well, disproportionate surprise and consternation. I say this not to make women writers more intimidated, nor to tell anyone they shouldn’t give voice to that surprise. Just, I wonder if this particular operation of power ought to be more closely observed by everybody, and guarded against.
8. Pro tip for young men: No more pitching Martin Amis reviews. Full stop.
(That was said as a sort of joke for the panel but I would add: it seems to me to be good professional advice, insofar as [a] the editor has probably already assigned the Martin Amis review if she’s interested in the book; and [b] it seems to me always better to show an editor that you have a new or exciting perspective to offer, which a review of a very established literary novelist might not give you a chance to showcase.)
Is your world flat? As Tom Tomorrow illustrates, Detective Friedman is on stand-by.
From left to right, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in the defendant's cage at their trial. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko.)
At the culmination of the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, band member Maria Alyokhina tells the court that “this trial is not just an evil, grotesque mask, it is the face that the government wears when speaking to the people of our country.”
The Sundance-winning documentary by Roast Beef Productions, which makes its public debut on June 10 on HBO, presents the narrative of the Pussy Riot trial as a parable on the reactionary nature of the Putin regime and its crackdown on free speech. Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin have collated a wide array of court proceedings, public actions and interviews with the defendants' parents and those who would see the three girls hang (in some cases literally).
But the documentary also leaves out a few messy details. Although it doesn't ignore the position of the Orthodox faithful undergirding the prosecution’s case, the film remains couched in the traditional Western narrative of the trial, which blames Putin for all things rotten in Russia, and fails to give full measure to the conservative majority and public employees, pensioners and others that still support both the president and Patriarch Kirill.
Meanwhile, it's unclear whether any of the film's profits will go to the group or related causes. (Roast Beef Productions reportedly had a contract with a company linked to a Pussy Riot lawyer, but band members have condemned the commercial use of the group's name). Lerner told The Nation that he could not disclose any commercial arrangements related to the movie but that the production team has a close working relationship with freed band member Yekaterina Samutsevich (although they unfortunately decided not to interview her).
The documentary begins with footage of the infamous “punk prayer” of February 21, 2012, when Pussy Riot members attempted to perform their song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” in Moscow’s iconic Church of Christ the Savior. Three of them made it onto the ambon at the head of the church and began yelling lyrics criticizing the Orthodox Church and its subservience to the state before being dragged out by security. (The film doesn't explore the difference between the widely circulated music video version it shows and the unedited footage where the girls sing mostly a cappella, which is arguably far less provocative.) Alyokhina, Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were later tried and convicted on charges of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred, and Alyokina and Tolokonnikova are now serving two years in penal colonies.
To its credit, the film attempts to give a human face to all those involved. Their somewhat befuddled parents describe the three girls’ personalities and path to radical politics, while the Carriers of the Cross, a kind of motorcycle-less biker gang in shirts reading “Orthodoxy or Death,” remark rather wistfully that in earlier times, such witches would have been hanged or burned at the stake.
Even the state prosecutors, two doughy, watery eyed bureaucrats, get their moment before the camera to refute contentions that Putin is directing the court proceedings, exclaiming that the opposition sees Putin “behind every bush.”
It's too bad the directors didn't interview Samutsevich, who was released in October after changing her defense and who has reportedly fallen out with Tolokonnikova. Instead they attempt to gain a glimpse into the girls' personalities and motives through footage of their questioning and trial. Some of the most human moments occur when the band members are chatting idly in the defendant’s cage, surrounded by cameramen and glowering policewomen as they wait for the proceedings to start. “Where are our lawyers?” Tolokonnikova wonders. “They’re giving interviews or tweeting,” Alyokhina says. “Or at the bar,” Tolokonnikova jokes.
The film’s climax comes with the riveting final speeches of the three girls before the guilty verdict that they expect, where they strike a tone that is defiant—they continue to condemn Putin, the Church and the trial—while arguing that their apologies were sincere.
“Every day, more people understand that if the political system ganged up like this on three girls that performed for 30 seconds in the Church of Christ the Savior, it can only mean that this system fears the truth and sincerity that we represent,” Tolokonnikova tells the court.
There’s certainly a lot of truth to this, but prosecutors’ framing of the protest as an affront to the faithful wasn’t entirely off-the-mark either. An independent poll on the eve of the verdict found that 42 percent of Russians thought Pussy Riot had “insulted holy places and believers’ faith.” Another poll during the trial showed that only five percent of Russians supported letting the band members off with no punishment.
It’s important not to forget these circumstances while watching what is otherwise a rousing defense of free speech.
Read Alec Luhn on Russia's fledgling student movement against controversial education reforms.
An Iraq veteran holds his son during a ceremony to dedicate his family’s new house in Jacksonville, North Carolina. (Courtesy of the US Marine Corps/Wikimedia.)
There are a number of ways for policy makers to sensibly address the glaring needs of post–September 11 veterans, who are suffering from a true crisis of post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment and suicide. Congress can increase funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, extending job training and unemployment insurance that veterans’ receive, increasing tuition support, and so on.
But there are deeper problems that are much more difficult to solve—the damaged mentality, perhaps, of a country that is essentially indifferent to the traumas of the thousands of citizens sent to fight and die over the past decade.
To that end, Representatives Jim McDermott and Walter Jones have introduced a bill that would create one of the more fascinating Congressional commissions in recent history: the Commission on America and Its Veterans.
They describe it as an effort to “heal the psychic wounds of war”—a kind of truth-and-reconciliation effort to bridge the gap between a battered combat force and the now-indifferent citizenry that ordered them to fight.
“The United States has waged wars, but not all are involved in fighting those wars, and the United States needs to be more deeply and regularly connected with members and their experiences in war and returning from war,” the preamble to HR 1492 reads. “The [n]ation needs a whole-of-society approach to improving the veteran’s position in society.”
McDermott and Jones gathered in a small room on Capitol Hill last week to announce their proposal, to a small crowd that contained relatively few reporters—except the ones at the podium. Sebastian Junger, the documentarian behind Restrepo, which told the story of a platoon serving in Afghanistan, was on hand, along with Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam veteran who wrote the book What It Is Like to Go to War.
Junger and Marlantes have been working with McDermott to help formulate the commission, and tried to describe what the group envisions during last week’s press conference.
“We’re going to try to change the consciousness of this country. It’s not about dollars, it’s not about whether the war was right or wrong, it’s about: does this nation actually share the burden of the killing?” Marlantes said.
“The whole nation builds the rifle—pays the taxes, puts it together, and decides through its representative body how that rifle will be used. The veteran is the person who pulls the trigger,” he said. “But what happens is that when the veteran comes home, it’s like the veteran was the only one that did the killing. We’ve got to change that attitude. They wonder why veterans feel alienated. If there’s an unconscious feeling on the part of the country that, ‘Well, you did it’—that’s going to go a long way to making that veteran’s healing way more difficult.”
The commission would have a few general goals: first, it would hold meetings across the country to kick off a dialogue between post–September 11 veterans and their communities, where the vets would tell their stories and try to share their burden.
It would also push for a national day of remembrance when the war in Afghanistan finally ends, for veterans of both that conflict and the war in Iraq. “We cannot end twelve years of war without marking it. It’s sort of like, well, is it business as usual to go to war?” Marlantes said. “No, it should not be business as usual. So when we’re done with it, we need to have a solemn way of marking it.”
There would be eighteen members of the commission, appointed by leaders of both parties from the House and Senate.
The legislation says the members cannot be employees of the federal government—and Junger wants to think outside the box. “We think there should be a psychologist on the commission. There should be maybe a poet. Poets know how to turn life into words so that everyone can understand,” he said last week. “Maybe there should be an anthropologist. I mean, imagine, a formal cross-cultural study about how cultures throughout the world have dealt with combat trauma.” He also recommended that members of the clergy be part of the commission, including a Sioux shaman he knows.
“We’re trying to be both effective and creative at the same time,” Junger said. “When people go to war, that means that you are going to kill other people. And right or wrong, it causes an enormous moral burden on anybody—on everybody. The community shares that burden in an organic culture. In this culture, it doesn’t.”
Throughout the press conference last week, all parties involved stressed that it would be a nonpartisan commission that wouldn’t focus on whether the post–September 11 wars have been wrong or right.
That’s a stark contrast to what, for example, former Representative Dennis Kucinich repeatedly proposed: a truth-and-reconciliation effort of a different sort, wherein the political process that led to needless combat was thoroughly interrogated, and the political leaders behind it punished.
But Junger—who opposed the Iraq War—stressed that he believed that for this particular effort to succeed in truly integrating recent veterans into society, it had to step outside politics.
He related the story of a recent veteran he knew that was struggling with having accidentally killed innocent civilians during combat. The soldier told Junger he would try to work through his burden with friends, but that left-wing friends would respond with disgust: “You killed civilians, that’s on you.” Right-wing friends would tell him to brush it off: “You did your job, you did your duty, thank you.”
The soldier, according to Junger, was deeply frustrated by both responses. “Why won’t anyone have an adult conversation with me about what war is about? It’s their war,” he told Junger. “They asked us to fight it, and we did it as well as we could. Why are they pretending it’s our war? We were just there.”
Read George Zornick on Benghazi whistleblower Gregory Hicks.
The IRS is under siege for investigating conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status. But the real problem wasn’t that the IRS was too aggressive. It was that the agency focused on the wrong people—“none of those groups were big spenders on political advertising; most were local Tea Party organizations with shoestring budgets,” writes The New York Times—and wasn’t aggressive enough. The outrage that Washington should be talking about—what my colleague Chris Hayes calls “the scandal behind the scandal”—is how the Citizens United decision has unleashed a flood of secret spending in US elections that the IRS and other regulatory agencies in Washington, like the Federal Election Commission, have been unwilling or unable to stem.
501c4 “social welfare” groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform—which don’t have to disclose their donors—spent more than $250 million during the last election. “Of outside spending reported to the FEC, 31 percent was ‘secret spending,’ coming from organizations that are not required to disclose the original sources of their funds,” writes Demos. “Further analysis shows that dark money groups accounted for 58 percent of funds spent by outside groups on presidential television ads [$328 million in total].”
IRS guidelines for 501c4 groups state that “the promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office…a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” It’s ludicrous for groups like Crossroads GPS—which spent at least $70 million during the last election—to claim that its primary purpose is not political activity. Only the likes of Karl Rove would believe that running attack ads against President Obama qualifies as social welfare.
So what did the IRS do about this blatant abuse of the tax code by some of the country’s top corporations and richest individuals? Virtually nothing. “When it comes to political spending, the IRS is more like a toothless tiger,” wrote Ken Vogel and Tarini Parti last year in a story headlined, “The IRS’s ‘feeble’ grip on big political cash.”
It’s obvious that our Wild West campaign-finance system needs more, not less, scrutiny and much tighter, not looser, regulation. Yet conservative groups are exploiting the IRS scandal to further dilute regulatory agencies that are already on life support. Writes Andy Kroll of Mother Jones:
The IRS’s tea party scandal, however, could hinder the agency’s willingness to ensure politically active nonprofits obey the law. The IRS will likely operate on this front with even more caution, taking pains not to appear biased or too aggressive. That in turn could cause the agency to shy away from uncovering 501(c)(4) organizations that do in fact abuse their tax-exempt status by focusing primarily on politics.
The Rove’s of the world would like nothing more than for the public to believe that conservative groups had too few opportunities to influence the 2012 election and were wrongly persecuted by evil Washington bureaucrats. Yet the 2012 election should have taught us precisely the opposite lesson—that our patchwork regulatory system is far from equipped to deal with the new Gilded Age unleashed by Citizens United. As Rep. Keith Ellison told Hayes last night: “We need to redouble our efforts to bring real campaign-finance reform forward.”
Read Ari Berman on why North Carolina’s voter ID bill is reminiscent of a poll tax. The bill has since passed state House of Representatives.
A screenshot from the RT video showing alleged spy “Ryan Fogle.”
As if President Obama’s week hasn’t been bad enough, with catastrophic scandals emerging over IRS political targeting and the Justice Department’s scary spying into the Associated Press—never mind the trumped-up, but badly bungled flap over Benghazi—now the White House has to deal with a spy crisis in Moscow.
Although most spy flaps involving the United States and Russia are usually swept under the Top Secret carpet, this one could not come at a worse time. It blew up on the virtual eve of a summit meeting between Obama and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and just at the start of a critical effort aimed at ending the civil war in Syria.
The Russian broadcast network RT has helpfully posted video of the alleged American spy, whose appearance in photos and video is eerily reminiscent of the photos of the Boston bombers: young, tousled hair, baseball cap and all. The man, Ryan C. Fogle—is that his real name? And did he really go spying about in Moscow carrying his real ID and embassy papers? While also carrying wigs and other disguises? Oy vey!—was nabbed with stacks of 500-euro notes and a written pledge to give $1 million to an informant (i.e., a spy) he was trying to recruit.
The FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, says:
“FSB counter-intelligence agents detained a CIA staff member who had been working under the cover of third political secretary of the US embassy in Moscow.… At the moment of detention, special technical equipment was discovered, written instructions for the Russian citizen being recruited, as well as a large sum of money and means for altering appearance.”
The Russians are kicking him out, but they’ve summoned Ambassador Michael McFaul to the woodshed for a talking-to.
McFaul, who’s been something of an agent provocateur himself—chumming it up too often with Russian dissidents and human rights groups, who, while often well-meaning, aren’t exactly at the heart of US-Russia relations—is a troublemaker. And while the CIA often does what it wants to overseas with only limited notification to the American ambassador, Obama could recapture the high ground with Moscow by firing McFaul, who’s past his sell-by date.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the event unfolded as a “previously scheduled session on U.S. support for Russian civil society began.”
The spying effort seems so twentieth century, with all the accouterments of the run-of-the-mill spy movie. As the Journal reports:
State-run media also posted a series of photos released by Russian security services that purportedly showed Mr. Fogle’s detention.
One appeared to show Mr. Fogle being handcuffed on the ground while wearing a baseball cap, a light-blue checked shirt and a dirty-blonde wig. The series of photos also included an image of what appeared to be Mr. Fogle’s U.S. Embassy identification card and another of his official Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomatic card. The diplomatic card was set to expire on April 29, 2014, three years after its issue date.
Another image shows a table strewed with the items recovered from Mr. Fogle’s detention. On the table are two wigs, three pairs of glasses, three Ziploc bags filled with thousands of euros, a microphone, a knife and an RFID Shield, a sleeve that protects passports and credit-cards with computer chips from being read remotely.
Again, oy vey. The embassy third-secretary was also caught with (get this) a compass. Yes, a compass. As The Washington Post reports:
“Who uses a compass these days?” asked Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who studies Russian security affairs. “This would be a phenomenal breach of tradecraft. This isn’t what they teach you at the CIA.”
The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement that hit the right note, namely, that the events are a poor counterpoint to the upswing in diplomacy between Washington and Moscow:
“While our two Presidents have reaffirmed their willingness to expand bilateral cooperation, including between intelligence agencies in the fight against international terrorism…such provocative Cold War-style actions do not contribute to building mutual trust.”
Precisely. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Over the course of the past week, actions by offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street movement have brought attention to the issues of student tuition hikes and food sovereignty.
In New York, a group of students at Cooper Union took over the college president’s office last week to protest a decision to begin charging tuition for the first time in at least a century. The trustees’ decision caused an uproar at Cooper, previously one of the last remaining free colleges in the country. The school claims it has no choice as it faces a $12 million annual deficit and, as a result, has decided to reduce its financial aid to 50 percent scholarships.
Activists believe the decision will lead to dire consequences, including limiting access to education. Occupy Wall Street states at its website that Cooper Union is by far the most diverse of all elite colleges: “white students are a minority here and two-thirds of the student body attended public high schools.”
In response, fifty students took over President Jamshed Bharucha’s office on the seventh floor of the school’s Foundation Building in Manhattan and signed a statement of no confidence in the president. Nine full-time members of Cooper Union’s art faculty signed onto the petition.
“Out of deep concern about the direction of the Cooper Union under President Jamshed Bharucha, the full-time faculty of the School of Arts adopts a resolution of a vote of No Confidence in President Jamshed Barucha,” the statement reads.
As of Tuesday, Bharucha’s office is still occupied.
“In case you were wondering if last night was the end the office is STILL occupied. Twenty-four students beginning to wake. #BharuchaStepDown,” Free Cooper Union tweeted.
“Institutions funded by philanthropy and real estate earnings are clearly unsustainable as foundations for a quality education, but the school’s economic problems and its board’s regressive solutions mirror the situation currently taking place at countless other universities, both public and private,” OWS states. “From CUNY tuition hikes to the torpedoing of Medgar Evers College to NYU’s unprecedented land grab, students across the city are fighting back. As student struggles continue across the globe, Cooper Union is a flashpoint for something much larger than itself.”
“The ongoing fight at Cooper Union is but one part of the broader struggle against austerity, debt, and all other symptoms of capitalism,” the group states.
Occupy could have also included Buena Vista High School in its list of austerity consequences. The Michigan school was closed six weeks early because the district—comprising 400 mostly black, mostly poor students—doesn’t have enough money to continue operations. The district has laid off all its teachers and all but three employees.
On the West Coast, another offshoot of the Occupy movement, Occupy The Farm, experienced a resurgence this week when activists returned to a plot of land owned by the University of California where a few of them had been arrested earlier in the day.
The activists had moved in over the weekend in order to plant crops.
Last spring, I wrote about Occupy the Farm’s efforts to highlight the issues of food sovereignty, climate change and the overall health of society. At the time, OTF activists had moved onto the Gill Tract, a patch of land along the San Pablo Avenue in Albany, California. The location was chosen because Gill Tract contains the last acres of Class One soil left in the urbanized East Bay. According to the group, ninety percent of the original land has been paved over and developed, irreversibly contaminating the land.
“We envision a future of food sovereignty,” OTF stated, “in which our East Bay communities make use of available land—occupying it where necessary—for sustainable agriculture to meet local needs.”
Food sovereignty is really an issue of food security, which is why this movement has been embraced at a global level. La Via Campesina, an international movement that coordinates peasant organizations of small producers, agricultural workers, rural women and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, defines food sovereignty as “the right of people to define agriculture and food policy, including prioritizing local agricultural production, access of peasants and landless people to land, water, seeds and credit.”
A healthy society eats good food and ensures the sovereignty and dignity of the people growing its food.
OTF activists have returned a year later to Gill Tract in order to fight the same battle. “This space is really important,” said organizer Lesley Haddock. “We’re not going away.”
“We feel that as public land, we all have a stake on what happens to it. We like to see it turned into an urban farm and we intend to see that happen,” said Haddock.
The university plans to develop the lot into a senior housing complex and a national chain grocery store.
University police officers have warned the activists they could be arrested for trespassing, but thus far the standoff remains peaceful.
While Congress dallies on immigration reform, groups are calling for the Obama administration to stop deporting people who are set to gain documented status. Read Aura Bogado’s take.
Tim Tebow as a Florida Gator, November 2009. (Reuters/Scott Audette)
Of the legions of unemployed in the United States, the most famous may be a person best described as, “Tim Tebow: Full Time Icon/Part-Time Quarterback.” After being released from the New York Jets last week, the man who was the toast of the NFL just one year ago cannot find a team willing to sign him. Even the Canadian Football League, long the refuge for quarterbacks cast out of Babylon, doesn’t want any part of “Tebowmania.”
We know that Tim Tebow isn’t very good at the whole throwing thing—always a drawback for a quarterback—but he has shown tremendous ability as an athlete and a divine flair for leading dramatic comebacks in the fourth quarter. He also would be an upgrade from several quarterbacks currently littering NFL rosters. There have simply never been so many bad quarterbacks leading NFL teams, yet Tebow’s phone isn’t ringing.
His inability to get signed, as Yahoo! Sports columnist Mike Silver laid out very persuasively, owes less to his abilities under center than all the frenzy that surrounds him. Tim Tebow is a neon distraction in a league that prefers the equivalent of men in gray flannel suits. If Tom Brady is the Don Draper of quarterbacks, then Tim Tebow is Megan Draper, flashing some skin and singing French pop songs, equal parts transfixing and excruciating. In other words, even if many an NFL owner shares Tim Tebow’s politics, they don’t share his need for attention. Our pro football bosses like doing their political business in the shadows, and Tim Tebow has become a living, breathing avatar for those fighting the Gary Bauer/Focus on the Family culture war like it’s still 1992.
Tebow is the only NFL player who can be described as having a base: a group of rabid fans who love him independently of his play and extol his greatness on the basis of his religiosity, his support for Focus on the Family or his wholesome whiteness. His base extends the tentacles of the culture war into any locker room he inhabits, turning any team he’s on into catnip for a media fiending to follow his every move, which only further alienates his teammates. The most compelling critique of Tebow, in my humble view, is that he has resisted any effort to disavow either his base or media attention, seemingly welcoming the distraction and even trying to leverage it to leapfrog toward more playing time. Your typical control-freak NFL head coach would rather have a player with a communicable plague than a player—especially a quarterback—who would relish this kind of constant distraction.
That’s what made Monday’s speech by congressional Neanderthal Representative Steve King all the more tragic for the future career prospects of Mr. Tebow. In the well of the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams risked arrest and assassination by inveighing against slavery, King decided to talk about his favorite subject, “the gays.” (Dan Savage doesn’t dwell on the “LGBT lifestyle” as much as Steve King.) Normally, whenever the Iowa congressman speaks, you roll your eyes, check your phone and, just in case, put the Southern Poverty Law Center on speed dial. But in this case, he invoked the name of Tim Tebow as a contrast to the athlete he sees is “undermining Western Civilization”: Jason Collins. Collins, of course, just became the first active, male, North American athlete to come out of the closet.
As King said, “We’ve got Tim Tebow who will kneel and pray to God on the football field. Meanwhile we have a professional athlete that decides he’s going to announce his sexuality and he gets a personal call from the United States to highlight the sexuality of a professional ballplayer. These are ways that the culture gets undermined, where it gets divided. The people over on this side take their followership from that kind of leadership. One notch at a time, American civilization, American culture, western civilization, western Judeo-Christiandom are eroded.”
First of all, “followership” is not a word. Second, moments like this are precisely why Tim can’t find work, and it’s a shame. As long as he’s not on my team, I actually like Tim Tebow. In the “No Fun League,” the one thing you would never accuse Tim Tebow of being is boring. But while NFL owners might financially support the Steve Kings of this world, people like him are seen as strangely gauche: the relative you keep locked in the attic when company arrives. Tim Tebow, if he so desired, could disavow Representative Steve King, the same way he cancelled a speaking engagement at a new $130 million Dallas megachurch after finding out its pastor, Dr. Robert Jeffress, believed Jews, Muslims and gay people were going to hell (it’s worth noting that Tebow did not condemn these comments and, according to Jeffress, has plans to reschedule). But at this point, the former Heisman trophy winner may have better future prospects as a speaker on the evangelical gravy train than as a quarterback, and if there is one thing we know about Tebow Inc., it knows where its bread is buttered. I fear, however, it will soon learn that the true Sunday megachurch in the USA is an NFL stadium. Without a team, Tim Tebow in time may find himself without a flock.
Meanwhile, two progressive congressmen are calling for a constitutional right to vote. Read John Nichols’s take.