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George Zornick | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Obama Isn’t Being Clear on Afghanistan Policy

President Barack Obama visits troops over Memorial Day weekend on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, May 26, 2014. (US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)

During his opening remarks at Friday’s year-ending press conference at the White House, President Obama declared that “in less than two weeks, after more than thirteen years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.”

No reporter followed up with Obama on that statement—nor with any questions about Afghanistan—but they really should have. One month ago, the New York Times reported this:

President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision.

This is the current two-step of US policy in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the U.S./NATO combat mission there has ostensibly ended, or “ceremonially” ended, as the Associated Press described it when the flag was lowered at NATO’s joint command earlier this month.

But at the same time, the mission is unmistakably ramping up. Just days before that flag-lowering ceremony, outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 1,000 more US troops would stay in Afghanistan next year than was originally planned. And the deeply-sourced New York Times report indicates US forces will indeed be engaging in direct combat.

This divergence between public statements and actual policy changes for America’s longest war really ought to be explored by the media, though the scant questions Friday indicate that may not be forthcoming. Similarly, even Congressional doves who have pushed hard against Obama’s Afghanistan policy have been silent. Following the Times report last month I pushed people like Senator Jeff Merkley and the Congressional Progressive Caucus for a response—given both had demanded Congress vote before Obama extended the war past 2014—but neither office ever responded.

UPDATE: In comments to The Nation, a senior administration official reiterated the White House stance that "the United States' combat mission in Afghanistan will conclude at the end of this year," and added that "the United States will continue to maintain a counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan to continue to target the remnants of al-Qa'ida and prevent an al-Qa'ida resurgence or external plotting against U.S. targets or the homeland." This is the policy Obama announced in May, though contradicts what the Times reported last month.

How Bad Can Marco Rubio and Congress Muck Up the Cuba Shift?

Marco Rubio

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Barack Obama announced a new era in US relations with Cuba Wednesday morning in which diplomatic ties will be reopened, along with a US embassy in Havana, while business and travel restrictions are eased.

These changes can be accomplished by executive order—but the next president could reverse them, and only Congress can lift the embargo. The permanence and depth of Obama’s policy shift thus remains in doubt.

Even if Congress doesn’t lift the embargo, the degree of opposition on Capitol Hill will significantly affect Obama’s attempted policy shift. Senator Marco Rubio openly threatened during a press conference Wednesday that the Senate would not confirm an ambassador to Cuba, and he also promised to work against any funding for a new US embassy. Senator Lindsey Graham joined in that threat.

Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage, jumped to the front of the Republican response to the new policies and seems to be leading the charge.

His first line of attack dovetailed with traditional GOP criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy: in a statement not long after the news broke Wednesday, Rubio called the shift “just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.” Rubio also blasted the White House for turning its back on Cubans who face repression from the Castro regime. “The president and this administration have let the people of Cuba down,” he told reporters later.

Rubio also attempted to frame it as a populist issue, with a twist of animus towards liberal elites: “While business interests seeking to line their pockets, aided by the editorial page of The New York Times, have begun a significant campaign to paper over the facts about the regime in Havana, the reality is clear,” his statement said.

No doubt some on the left will share Rubio’s ostensible concerns about free-market exploitation of Cuba, if not for entirely different reasons. (White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest further invited this line of attack when he literally read from a Chamber of Commerce press release from the briefing room podium Wednesday afternoon.)

Rubio was joined in his vehement criticism by House Speaker John Boehner, the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee Edward Royce and the chairman-for-now of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez.

Menendez is a Democrat. However, the incoming Republican chairman of Senate Foreign Relations, Bob Corker, issued an entirely neutral statement on the policy shift towards Cuba.

So will Congress lift the embargo? Will it go so far as to block an ambassador? On the one hand, the opposition of the House Speaker and the (soon-to-be) ranking Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations is a bad sign. Rubio also chairs a key Foreign Relations Committee on the Western Hemisphere. And “no, Congress won’t do anything” is a safe bet, generally speaking. But members of both parties also support normalized relations—Republican Speaker Jeff Flake flew to Cuba to see imprisoned American Alan Gross home on Wednesday—and Americans favor lifting the embargo.

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Unfortunately, presidential politics may trump a rational discussion in Congress.

Elections have a way of freezing domestic politics: just since November 4, Obama has signed sweeping immigration orders, released the CIA torture report and normalized relations with Cuba, while Congress finally passed an appropriations bill for the 2015 fiscal year. None of this was feasible in the heat of midterm election campaigning, and the 2016 presidential election may soon act as a vise once again.

Thanks to the traditional (though rapidly shifting) conservative politics of Cuban Americans, along with some pure happenstance, the likely GOP presidential field is top-heavy with Republicans who oppose normalized relations with Cuba.

Along with Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz is also a Cuban-American who opposes lifting sanctions against Cuba. Cruz also criticized Obama’s shift in a statement. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who announced just this week he is “actively exploring” a presidential run, has long-standing political ties with conservative Cuban-Americans in his state and already announced he, too, opposes Obama’s actions.

The primary debates next year will likely give a huge, and arguably disproportionate, voice to the exact Republicans who most oppose normalized relations with Cuba. Maybe one of them will win the White House and wipe out Obama’s executive orders—but even if that doesn’t happen, it’s easy to see how the election might pressure Republicans in Congress to fall in line and drag their feet on legislative action.

Read Next: “Détente With Cuba: Just About Freaking Time”

Senator Udall Discloses CIA Findings on Torture and Blasts Obama’s Inaction

Senator Mark Udall of Colorado

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The debate in Washington over Bush-era torture at the Central Intelligence Agency took a large leap forward Wednesday morning when Senator Mark Udall took the Senate floor and disclosed portions of an internal CIA review, while renewing his demand for a change in the intelligence agency’s leadership and criticizing the Obama administration for not doing enough to ensure torture doesn’t happen again.

The so-called “Panetta Review” has dominated much of the drama leading up to the torture report’s release. The document is an internal CIA examination that reportedly validated many of the worst claims about the torture program, including much of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings. (The CIA was after this document when it breached Senate computers in January.)

On Wednesday, Udall described the Panetta Review as a “smoking gun”—proof from the CIA itself that there were serious problems with the torture program. It undercuts almost every contemporary statement made by CIA Director John Brennan and other top intelligence officials, he said, who have vocally been defending what occurred.

Since the CIA refuses to make the Panetta Review public, Udall declared Wednesday, “I am here today to disclose some of its key findings and conclusions on the Senate floor for the public record, which fly directly in the face of claims made by senior CIA officials past and present.”

He then proceeded to describe, for the first time, some of what the Panetta Review found, contrasting it directly to Brennan’s public statements. His remarks on that score, in full:

The Panetta Review found that the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Congress, the president, and the public on the efficacy of its coercive techniques. The Brennan Response, in contrast, continues to insist that the CIA’s interrogations produced unique intelligence that saved lives. Yet the Panetta Review identifies dozens of documents that include inaccurate information used to justify the use of torture—and indicates that the inaccuracies it identifies do not represent an exhaustive list.

The Panetta Review further describes how detainees provided intelligence prior to the use of torture against them. It describes how the CIA—contrary to its own representations—often tortured detainees before trying any other approach. It describes how the CIA tortured detainees even when less coercive methods were yielding intelligence. The Panetta Review further identifies cases in which the CIA used coercive techniques when it had no basis for determining whether a detainee had critical intelligence at all. In other words, CIA personnel tortured detainees to confirm they didn’t have intelligence—not because they thought they did.

This is a critical disclosure that intelligence officials should be confronted with the next time they appear on television. (Given their pervasive presence on the airwaves over the past day, it won’t be long.) It’s not just that Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee reached a damning conclusion about CIA torture—the CIA itself reached the same conclusion but won’t admit it.

As Udall put it in his remarks: “Director Brennan and the CIA today are continuing to willfully provide inaccurate information and misrepresent the efficacy of torture. In other words, the CIA is lying.”

Yet, Brennan remains in his job. And Udall did not spare President Obama for this fact:

To date, there has been no accountability for the CIA’s actions or for Director Brennan’s failure of leadership. Despite the facts presented, the president has expressed his “full confidence” in Director Brennan, and demonstrated that trust by making no effort at all to rein him in. The president stated that it wasn’t “appropriate” for him to wade into the issues between the Committee and the CIA.[…]

The White House has not led on this issue in the manner we expected when we heard the president’s campaign speeches in 2008 and read the executive order he issued in January 2009. To CIA employees in April 2009, President Obama said, “What makes the United States special, and what makes you special, is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and ideals even when it’s hard—not just when it’s easy; even when we are afraid and under threat—not just when it’s expedient to do so. That’s what makes us different.”

This tough, principled talk set an important tone for the beginning of his presidency. However, fast forward to this year, after so much has come to light about the CIA’s barbaric programs, and President Obama’s response was that we “crossed a line” as a nation, and that, quote, “hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.”

That’s not good enough. We need to be better than that. There can be no cover-up. There can be no excuses. If there is no moral leadership from the White House helping the public understand that the CIA’s torture program wasn’t necessary and didn’t save lives or disrupt terrorist plots, then what’s to stop the next White House and CIA Director from supporting torture?

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Udall renewed his call for Brennan to resign and demanded that Obama support legislation that would enshrine his executive order banning torture. He also asked Obama to fully declassify the Panetta Review and the entire Senate Intelligence Committee Report (only the executive summary and key findings were released on Tuesday), along with the CIA Inspector General report on the breach of Senate computers.

Finally, Udall drew attention to the fact that not only have people who participated in the torture program not been prosecuted—but they still have jobs. “The president needs to purge his administration of high-level officials who were instrumental to the development and running of this program,” Udall said. “He needs to force a cultural change at the CIA.”

Read Next: Senate report: CIA torture was brutal and ineffective.

Senate Report: CIA Torture Was Brutal and Ineffective

Guantánamo protest

People protest against “indefinite detentions” at Guantánamo Bay detention center and Bagram prison, while in front of the White House, Friday, October 24, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence finally released its extensive report on torture methods employed by the Central Intelligence Agency following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The full report paints a damning picture of an out-of-control program that was much less effective and far more brutal than previously known.

There are many important corollary issues to deal with involving this report and the CIA’s torture program more broadly: why no prosecutions will be forthcoming, and why the report didn’t focus on policy decisions by the Bush administration.

But for today, the report offers a monumental accounting of just how bad things got at the CIA. The unassailable conclusion one reaches after 500 pages: the United States brutally tortured detainees in the years after September 11. The intelligence community didn’t get any actionable information from it, and they lied to nearly everyone about what was going on.

Here are the essential findings.

CIA torture was extremely brutal. We knew that CIA interrogators used waterboarding, sleep deprivation and some physical abuse against detainees, but the SSCI report details horrific methods that go far beyond that—describing techniques that at times troubled even the people charged with carrying out interrogations.

CIA personnel would routinely keep detainees awake for inhuman amounts of time—“up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads,” the report said.

The sleep deprivation and forced standing was the worst at a CIA site codenamed COBALT in the report, which analysts agree is the infamous “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan. At one point, the CIA’s chief of interrogations there described it as a literal dungeon:

One detainee died at COBALT while shackled to a wall, a previously reported death the report sheds more light on:

Other abuses detailed by the report:

  • Placing detainees in ice-water baths.

  • Telling detainees they would never be allowed to leave secret prisons, and at times dragging coffins into the interrogation room to underline the threat.

  • Threatening the detainees’ families with harm, including “threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’”

  • “Rough takedowns” in which a detainee would be dragged from his cell by screaming CIA officers who would then cut off the detainee’s clothes and bind him with tape. The detainee “would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.”

  • Forced rectal hydration—that is, the insertion of liquids and nutrients into a detainee’s rectum against his will. This can at times be used to treat malnourished patients who are unable or unwilling to eat, but the report makes clear the CIA ordered rectal procedures when it wasn’t medically necessary as well:

The report tells the story of Abu Zubaydah at length. He is a Saudi arrested in Pakistan in 2002 who is still being held at Guantánamo Bay.

Once he was transferred to CIA custody, Zubaydah was placed in an extremely disorienting all-white room with four bright halogen lights pointed at him twenty-four hours a day. He was shackled while loud music played non-stop. CIA officers “wore all black uniforms, including boots, gloves, balaclavas, and goggles to keep Abu Zubaydah from identifying the officers, as well as to prevent Abu Zubaydah ‘from seeing the security guards as individuals who he may attempt to establish a relationship or dialogue with,’” the report says. Things got worse from there.

He first spent forty-seven days in isolation without being questioned, during which time the CIA was telling other members of George W. Bush’s national-security apparatus that Zubaydah had stopped cooperating—a claim they would later repeat publicly. (More on this brand of deception later.) Though that wasn’t true, the CIA claimed it had to come up with some “enhanced interrogation” to get him to cooperate.

Over the course of twenty days, ending on August 20, 2002, the enhanced interrogation began. What is described in the report is otherwise known as torture. Zubaydah was waterboarded two to four times per day, according to the report, “with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application.”

When he was alone during these twenty days, he was often left strapped into the waterboard with a cloth over his face, unaware of when the next round would begin. At other times, he was locked in one of two coffins that CIA staff placed in the room; one was a standard-sized coffin while the other was only 2.5 feet high and deep, and less than two feet wide. Over that time, Zubaydah “spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box.”

According to the cables reviewed by the Senate investigators, Zubaydah frequently “cried,” “begged,” “pleaded” and “whimpered.” At times, Zubaydah was described as “hysterical” and “distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate.”

The report also confirms a previously reported fact: that Zubaydah nearly died during one waterboarding session, and that the CIA later destroyed videotapes of the incident.

The torture took a toll on CIA staff present, according to the report:

The torture wasn’t effective. If there’s one sentence to take away from the report, it’s this: “the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.” The report found literally not one instance where torture led to a useful piece of information that couldn’t have been otherwise obtained by routine interrogation. This undercuts virtually every defense made by Bush officials of the CIA program.

The committee examined cases where the CIA claimed torture worked, but none of it flew with investigators. “The Committee reviewed twenty of the most frequent and prominent examples of purported counterterrorism successes that the CIA has attributed to the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques, and found them to be wrong in fundamental respects,” the report said.

Not only did torture not reveal useful information, it sometimes sent the CIA on wild goose chases, the report found: “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence. Detainees provided fabricated information on critical intelligence issues, including the terrorist threats which the CIA identified as its highest priorities.”

Turning back to Abu Zubaydah is once again instructive. He never turned out to have any unique information on pending terror plots in the United States.

That’s not to say he didn’t have information about other people involved in plots against the United States, and things that happened in the past—but materials obtained by the Senate investigators reveal how Zubaydah was willingly giving FBI agents this information under no duress while he was in the hospital recovering from gunshot wounds that occurred during his capture.

The FBI agent working with Zubaydah wrote in an e-mail how surprised he was that the CIA later took over the interrogation entirely, with no discussion:

Not long after that e-mail was written, the CIA had total control over Zubaydah, and the torture began and resulted in no further useful information.

The CIA was lying—to everybody. The report describes at length how many different people and entities the CIA misled about what kind of torture it was practicing and how effective it was. (Or wasn’t.)

The CIA lied to other agencies within the Bush administration. The report said that, “[i]n providing the ‘effectiveness’ examples to policymakers, the Department of Justice, and others, the CIA consistently omitted the significant amount of relevant intelligence obtained from sources other than CIA detainees who had been subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques—leaving the false impression the CIA was acquiring unique information from the use of the techniques.”

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The report also says that, at the direction of the White House, the secretaries of state and defense “were not briefed on program specifics.” An internal CIA e-mail from July 2003 included in the report noted that “the WH [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.”

The report even says that Bush and Vice President Cheney were not briefed on the location of certain methods or black sites. While (perhaps) this is narrowly true, it may elide larger questions of how much the high-up principals really knew (or wanted to know).

The CIA also lied to Congress; the report discloses e-mails between CIA staffers who planned to stonewall requests from then–Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham until he was out of office, for example. When the CIA torture program went public in 2006 thanks to a New York Times report, the CIA briefed Congress—and lied then too: “Briefings to the full Committee beginning on September 6, 2006, also contained numerous inaccuracies, including inaccurate descriptions of how interrogation techniques were applied and what information was obtained from CIA detainees.”

The media was also the target of explicit CIA deception, with selected leaks to high-profile reporters aimed at pre-shaping the narrative on torture. One internal CIA e-mail noted that “when the [Washington Post]/[New York T]imes quotes ‘senior intelligence official,’ it’s us.” The report found that “[m]uch of the information the CIA provided to the media on the operation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program and the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques was inaccurate and was similar to the inaccurate information provided by the CIA to the Congress, the Department of Justice, and the White House.”

Read Next: Thousands of Americans demand transparency around Bush-era torture.

Why Chuck Hagel’s Departure Really Matters

Chuck Hagel

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s surprise resignation—reportedly at the strong urging of the White House—will dominate Beltway news in the coming days. But perhaps the much more significant foreign-policy news came early Saturday morning.

The New York Times reported that the United States will expand its mission in Afghanistan in 2015, with US troops participating in direct combat with the Taliban while American airpower backs Afghan forces from above. The shift, leaked anonymously to reporters ahead of a holiday week, is a big “oh, nevermind” to Obama’s very public announcement six months ago in the Rose Garden that US troops in Afghanistan would be shifting into a training and advisory role next year.

The president didn’t even make a glancing reference to the Afghanistan reversal in his remarks announcing Hagel’s departure. The administration would clearly prefer a limited public debate, and based on the media coverage so far, it is getting its wish.

But it is against this new hawkish posture that Hagel’s departure should be understood and discussed. It is possible that it was the subtext to his resignation: Hagel came aboard to help manage a withdrawal from Afghanistan and shrink the Pentagon budget, and an anonymous US official told the Times Monday that “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus.”

The retrenchment in Afghanistan reportedly came after a “a lengthy and heated debate” inside the White House that pitted military generals against some administration officials:

Mr. Obama’s decision, made during a White House meeting in recent weeks with his senior national security advisers, came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban—and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda.

But the military pushed back, and generals both at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan urged Mr. Obama to define the mission more broadly to allow American troops to attack the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants if intelligence revealed that the extremists were threatening American forces in the country.

Was the historically dovish Hagel one of these officials? It is certainly curious that his departure directly coincides with the new aggressive plan for Afghanistan.

No reporting yet indicates that for certain, and Hagel is notoriously guarded—one reason cited for his resignation was reportedly that he remained quiet in meetings, supposedly to avoid leaks of his position. It is certainly possible that ISIS’s rapid emergence and other foreign-policy crises contributed to Hagel’s poor standing inside the White House, along with his reported leadership problems.

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Ultimately, that’s an academic question for the administration’s biographers. What matters now is that the United States is changing course toward a more aggressive foreign policy: it is recommitting to the war in Afghanistan, which is by far the country’s longest and now promises to span two two-term presidencies. The number of troops in Iraq has doubled, and the administration will soon seek an authorization from a Congress that is extremely unlikely to include a provision that outlaws direct combat by US troops. Even supposed doves like Rand Paul are switching their position on fighting ISIS, and the incoming class of senators has distinct interventionist positions.

Hagel’s departure—and the confirmation of his successor—will hopefully allow for some serious public debate about this new turn, even if the administration prefers otherwise. The real story here is about the policy, not the personnel.

 

Read Next: Before Senator Mark Udall leaves office, he can make history.

Elizabeth Warren Elected to Senate Leadership Post

Elizabeth Warren

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts questions a witness at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on anti money laundering in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Senator Elizabeth Warren will be part of the Democrats’ leadership team in the Senate, the party decided on Thursday morning. At the urging of majority leader Harry Reid, a new position was created for Warren: strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

Several outlets have reported Warren will be a liaison to liberal groups, which will indeed be part of her duties—but a source close to Reid stressed to The Nation that Warren was brought into leadership to help steer policy and communications decisions.

Senate Democrats have a number of important decisions to make as the minority party in the coming two years: which Democratic proposals to highlight, which Republican bills to aggressively oppose and what amendments to propose to must-pass legislation. (Soon-to-be majority leader Mitch McConnell says he will embrace an open amendment process.) Senate Democrats will also be an important potential counterweight to any compromises that President Obama may try to work out with congressional Republicans if Democratic votes are needed.

The source close to Reid said Warren will be a “crucial” voice and vote at the leadership table when strategic decisions are being made. It’s hard not to conclude that progressives will thus have a stronger ability to steer the party’s strategic course going forward.

Warren is an outspoken opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal, which is likely to come up for fast-track consideration some time next year. Both McConnell and Obama favor it, while Reid and many (but not all) Senate Democrats oppose fast-track authority.

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She also is vocal about closing tax loopholes for corporations and not only protecting Social Security but expanding it. Corporate tax reform is also something Obama and McConnell both ostensibly want, and Social Security could come up during tense budget standoffs between the White House and Congress. (Senate Republicans are already planning a commission to “study options” on Social Security.)

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a major Warren backer, immediately sent a triumphant e-mail blast to one million PCCC members, declaring that “This is a good reminder that when we invest early in progressive leaders, it’s not just about winning elections in the short term—it’s about building power over time.”

Of course, no development involving Warren can happen outside the vacuum of 2016 presidential politics. “Her new role shows that Warren is incredibly influential and is going to be a leader in shaping the Democratic Party and politics in general,” Erica Sagrans, an Obama campaign alum who now runs Ready for Warren, told The Nation the new leadership position “gives her a bigger platform, but an even bigger one would be a presidential run.”

 

Read Next: A 2014 mandate: an amendment to remove big money from politics

It Was a Great Night for Gun Reform

Initiative 594

An election-night party in Seattle for Initiative 594 (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

There weren’t many bright spots for progressives on Tuesday, but if you back stronger gun laws, things went even better than you could have reasonably expected.

The big news was in Washington State, where a ballot initiative implementing tough universal background checks on gun purchases and transfers passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote. The vote was already projected to pass and came on the heels of a mass shooting at a Seattle-area high school that left four students dead.

A dueling initiative that would ban such checks failed badly. Pro-gun advocates had at least hoped the two initiatives would confuse voters and perhaps both would pass and create a legally chaotic situation, but they appear to have underestimated Washingtonians’ engagement on the issue.

Now, Washington State will have a model system where virtually every gun purchase—even online and at gun shows—will be subject to a background check. There are very narrow exceptions for antique gun sales and transfers within families, but even lending someone a gun for twenty-four hours would require a check.

The victory is important well beyond Washington state, too—it’s a model for other states to undertake similar reform while DC dithers. Nevada is already going to vote on a very similar measure in 2016, which will no doubt propel the issue into the presidential race since Nevada hosts key primaries for both parties and is also a valuable swing state.

Washington also demonstrated that the National Rifle Association can be beaten—it spent almost half a million dollars against the ballot initiative, but it didn’t matter. Gun-reform groups showed they can come in with big money of their own and win crucial votes.

“[Washington voters] showed that while the gun lobby can intimidate politicians in Washington, it’s a lot harder to intimidate America’s voters,” former US Representative Gabby Giffords said in a statement last night. “This victory for responsibility in Washington State sends a clear message to the other Washington that if Congress is not ready to act to reduce gun violence, voters in states around the country can and will take the matter into their own hands.”

But that wasn’t all. In race after race across the country, gun reform pretty much ran the table:

  • Three governors signed tough new gun restrictions into law after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy and Colorado Governor Mark Hickenlooper. All had opponents that loudly criticized the gun reforms, but all three incumbents won on Tuesday.

  • Cuomo’s victory wasn’t in doubt, but Malloy and Hickenlooper faced very tough races. The NRA went particularly hard after Hickenlooper, but he pulled out an unlikely victory—with a lot of help from gun-reform groups like Bloomberg’s Everytown and Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions.

  • Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Democratic incumbent in Connecticut who represents Newtown, beat back a challenge from a Republican who opposed new gun laws. That would have been a devastating symbolic loss for the gun-reform movement. We profiled that race back in September, here.

  • Republican Susan Collins of Maine won re-election handily. She was one of only four Republicans to vote for the Manchin-Toomey background-check bill, and it didn’t appear to cost her anything politically. “Senator Collins’ re-election tonight in Maine, a state with a proud history of gun ownership, proves that elected officials can support common-sense measures to reduce gun violence without infringing on the constitutional rights of their constituents,” said Everytown in a statement.

  • On the flip side, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor lost his bid for re-election in Arkansas despite opposing the background-check bill. The NRA dropped over a million dollars to beat him anyway, and gun-reform groups didn’t give a dime in support. Alaska Senator Mark Begich is in the same boat. 

  • Cook County, Illinois, passed an advisory referendum on Tuesday backing much tougher gun laws, including universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. It passed with a whopping 86.5 percent of the vote.

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One final victory may come in the Arizona district that used to be held by Giffords. Her former chief of staff, Representative Ron Barber, faced a tough race against Republican Martha McSally that was riven with controversy over gun control. This seat also carries heighten symbolism for the gun-reform movement.

The race is currently too close to call, with Barber behind by as little as seventy-five votes. Barber declared last night he was confident in victory.

Surely not everything went well for gun reform advocates; Senators like Kay Hagan who voted for background checks were defeated, and Mary Landrieu may join her in a month. But it's hard to look at the final scorecard and see a big victory for reform.

 

Read Next: Weed is legal in the capital—and ten other reasons the election wasn’t a total bust.

Republicans Just Took Over the Senate—Here’s Why That Sucks

Mitch McConnell

(Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

When Iowa and North Carolina were called almost simultaneously a little before 11:30 Tuesdaynight, the seemingly inevitable became official: Republicans will control the Senate and thus the entire legislative branch.

On a variety of fronts, this new alignment is going to be hugely problematic for progressive governance—perhaps for governance, period. These will be the major flash points. The last one is the most important because it’s how the GOP will force Obama’s hand on most of the rest.

1. Staffing the Executive Branch.

For much of the Obama presidency, Republicans in the Senate stymied up dozens of presidential appointments to cabinet slots big and small, as well as nominations to the federal bench. Harry Reid implemented filibuster reform one year ago, and nominations have been handled more quickly—but with Republicans in charge, expect them to grind to a halt. Republicans blocked nominees reflexively under the old filibuster rules, many times without offering a single actual objection, and that’s very likely to resume now.

Republicans well understand that failing to staff the executive branch—and particularly the judicial branch—is a great way to slow down Obama’s priorities now, and even affect the trajectory of American jurisprudence long after he leaves office. There are still fifty-nine vacancies on federal district and appellate courts, a 7-percent vacancy rate, and 35 percent of those empty seats are in areas that have been declared judicial emergency. This problem will get much worse, not better, over the next two years.

2. Filling a Supreme Court Vacancy.

The old filibuster rules still required sixty votes to confirm a Supreme Court nominee, which was going to be a tough lift anyway. But Obama managed it twice already. With Republicans in charge, it may be impossible.

First the nominee would have to clear the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be chaired by conservative stalwart Chuck Grassley. Then, a Republican Senate has to approve the nominee. In the event Obama sends any kind of discernibly liberal judge to the Senate, it’s easy to imagine the GOP outright blocking him or her. Alternately, Obama could try to avoid that situation by making an opaque nomination with no discernible views on key issues like abortion and money in politics. This might be the more terrifying of the two possibilities.

3. Deregulating Carbon Emissions.

If the GOP’s biggest goal is repealing Obamacare, a close second is blocking the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limits on carbon emissions. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse pointed out on All In with Chris Hayes last night, the GOP House has actually passed more bills targeting the EPA than those repealing Obamacare. And unlike with the Affordable Care Act, Republicans have the full and enthusiastic backing of their corporate allies in blocking EPA carbon limits.

When noted climate-denier Jim Inhofe takes the gavel of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee from Barbara Boxer in January, there are many ways he could pass legislation stopping the regulation. He could attach riders to any number of bills that deny funding for those regulations. Or he could simply decline to fund the entire EPA and tell the White House no money would be forthcoming until the regulations are cancelled.

4. Deregulating Everything Else.

The House provided a nice sneak preview of how a GOP Congress would try to deregulate just about anything—passing big bills like the REINS Act which would essentially stop or slow most government regulation, to a plethora of smaller exceptions, carve outs and cancelations for chosen industries. We can expect the Senate to approve many of these moves and force a showdown with Obama.

Dodd-Frank will be one area to watch. While it’s unlikely the GOP will get Obama to go along with a big-ticket deregulatory move like weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—though it will surely try—it could go after, and win, some smaller battles.

5. Keystone XL.

This one is easy to predict since Republicans have said outright, several times, that one of their first orders of business will be a binding bill authorizing the pipeline. Now, GOP Senate aides are telling The Hill that they may already have the Democratic votes necessary to pass a filibuster-proof bill approving the pipeline.

Obama would of course have to sign the bill, but if many Senate Democrats end up supporting approval, there is a growing fatalism in environmental circles that the president would go along.

6. Keeping Obamacare Intact.

You can bet your bottom dollar House Republicans will at once pass a full Obamacare repeal, and those in the Senate will spend a lot of time trying. You can just as surely bet Obama won’t sign it if it does somehow pass.

But Republicans might be able to force other changes to the law, like repealing the Medical Device Tax and canceling the Independent Payment Advisory Board, as Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress notes. Both are things that also might gather some Democratic votes. If the GOP is smart, it will pick winnable battles on Obamacare and succeed in at least partially weakening the law they hate so deeply.

7. Budgeting.

Many of the GOP’s desired goals will still be impossible, as they still need to overcome the sixty-vote threshold on legislation. But on budgeting and appropriations that’s not true—only fifty-one votes are needed to pass those under reconciliation that isn’t true.

This is going to create a super-tense showdown with Obama. Many progressives remember when the president was eager to adopt budgetary changes like cutting Social Security benefits through a change in the Chained-CPI formula—something Harry Reid thwarted by literally throwing the proposal in his fireplace.

8. Keeping the Government Open.

This is the big one, and the mechanism through which the GOP might be able to get many of the aforementioned policy wins. Before, the House GOP wasn’t able to clearly put forward its goals, particularly on things like the Ryan budget, because it got all garbled up in conference negotiations with the Senate. House members who wanted to avoid this conversation were fond of telling hard-liners that “we’re only one-half of one-third of the government,” so they had to compromise.

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But that’s no longer true. With a deeply red Republican Congress and the word “mandate” dancing through the heads of many elected GOPers—and members of the media—it will be easy to force a simple showdown with Obama. Maybe Republicans go full-Ryan budget, which Obama certainly rejects, and there’s a government shutdown. Maybe they are smart about it and pass a really bad budget that’s just good enough for Obama to sign. Either way, it’s bad news for progressives.

Read Next: Obama should not accept lame-duck status.

Who’s Spending on Louisiana’s Senate Seat?

Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event for Senator Mary Landrieu, D-LA, left, in New Orleans, Saturday, November 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

new orleansIn places where there is a contested Senate race, chances are it is the most expensive midterm election in state history. Louisiana is no exception. Federal Election Commission filings show well over $30 million spent by candidates and outside groups.

At a raucous gathering for Senator Mary Landrieu on Saturday, Hillary Clinton reminded the crowd of this fact in particularly charged language for New Orleans, where the rally was being held. “There has been a flood of outside money trying to muddy the waters, drown your voice, discourage people from voting,” she said.

If the Senate election here heads to a runoff, there might be actual dump trucks of money coming across the state line, particularly if the seat will end up determining control of the upper chamber. Taking a closer look at who is spending the money—and who isn’t—is an easy way to pick up on some of this race’s unique contours.

Louisiana is one of only two contested Senate races where the US Chamber of Commerce isn’t involved. (The other is Arkansas.) As we noted last week, the Chamber has an enormous footprint wherever it goes, averaging close to $1 million per race. It’s the biggest spender in twenty-eight of the thirty-five contests it is involved with this cycle.

But it hasn’t spent a dime attacking Landrieu nor boosting her opponent, Republican Representative Bill Cassidy. This likely reflects a desire not to make an enemy of Landrieu were she to hold onto the seat, since she is the chair of the hugely powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

It’s a huge boon to Landrieu not to have a heavyweight like the Chamber pummeling her in the state, and it’s one of many ways her chairmanship has become a key asset in the campaign. Speaker after speaker at Saturday’s rally reminded potential voters how important Landrieu’s position is for the state, where over 400,000 jobs rely on the oil and gas industry.

“Nobody can tell the people of Louisiana that ‘Hey folks, we’re gonna vote to replace the chairman of the United States Senate Energy Committee, the most important committee…to the state of Louisiana, with a new first-term senator,’&thin;” said former Senator John Breaux. “We’re not gonna buy that. That would be like saying we’re going to kick Drew Brees out of being quarterback and replace him with a freshman quarterback from some high school.”

Though the Chamber isn’t actively backing Landrieu, many oil and gas companies are. Exxon Mobil, NRG Energy and Dominion Resources are three of the top five contributors to her campaign committee. They don’t even appear in Cassidy’s top twenty.

Landrieu is benefiting greatly from the oil companies’ support, and the non-support of the Chamber. The industry surely expects the favor to be returned if she holds on, which would have long-ranging impacts for the state and national energy policy going forward. (Zoë Carpenter explored this at length in our October 1 issue.)

But not every oil and gas producer has made the same calculation. The Louisiana Oil & Gas Association is supporting Cassidy, citing a bigger picture. “It’s not about the job that Mary has done, it’s about who controls that Senate,” the group’s president, Don Briggs, told Politico.

* * *

The changing politics over gun control are also visible in the FEC filings for this race. Landrieu voted for the universal background check bill that was pushed in the wake of the Newtown shootings last year—something many observers saw as a courageous vote for such a rural, gun-loving state.

Accordingly, the National Rifle Association has dropped almost $2.3 million to defeat Landrieu this cycle. The NRA is the fifth-biggest-spending outside group involved on either side of the race, with $1.7 million, and the NRA Institute for Legislative action is seventh with $529,000.

But sandwiched in between, as the sixth-biggest-spending group, is Americans for Responsible Solutions, the pro-gun reform group founded by Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark. It has spent $570,000 on the race so far, which doesn’t cancel out the NRA, but surely helps blunt its impact.

One needs only to look north to Arkansas to see why Landrieu’s support for background checks was a smart play in terms of campaign finance. (To say nothing of the moral and policy imperatives.) There, Democrat Mark Pryor is also locked in a tough battle. He voted against the gun bill—and the NRA is backing his Republican opponent anyway. And Pryor has none of the money from the Giffords group.

* * *

There is a unique ideological split among conservatives in this race—Tea Party favorite Rob Maness is pulling around 9 percent of the vote in most polls. The GOP base was already skeptical of Cassidy’s ideological purity, and Maness, a former Army colonel, has been boosted by endorsements from conservative icons like Tony Perkins and Sarah Palin.

Maness is unlikely to win (Palin’s prognostications aside) but he could easily force this race into a runoff by denying Cassidy more than 50 percent of the vote. To that end, Cassidy held a rally in St. Tammany Parish on Saturday with Dr. Ben Carson, a conservative icon in his own right who makes headlines by frequently comparing Obamacare to slavery.

Though he might have low poll numbers, Maness is doing better in the outside-spending race. The Senate Conservatives fund has dropped $442,430 into the race to support him, making it the ninth-highest-spending outside group. This is helping Maness with valuable exposure to state conservatives, and if Louisiana’s Senate race does indeed end up in a runoff, that half-million dollars could be a big reason why.

Guess Who’s About to Buy Congress

Chamber of Commerce

The US Chamber of Commerce building in Washington, DC (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The midterm elections are less than a week away, and money is pouring into contested states and districts at a furious pace. A new analysis from Public Citizen shows the biggest “dark money” spender is none other than the US Chamber of Commerce, a mega-trade group representing all sorts of corporations—and one that is spending exclusively to defeat Democrats in the general election.

The Chamber is a 501(c)(6) tax-exempt organization, meaning it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. We know from looking at its board, available membership lists and tax forms from big corporations that much of the Chamber’s money has generally come from titans in the oil, banking and agriculture industries, among others.

The Chamber is leaving a huge footprint in almost every race it enters. The report shows that, through October 25, the Chamber has spent $31.8 million. The second-largest dark-money spender, Crossroads GPS, spent $23.5 million:

Among the report’s other findings:

  • The Chamber is averaging $908,000 per race it enters.

  • The Chamber is the biggest dark-money spender in twenty-eight of thirty-five races it entered.

  • Of the twelve contested Senate races, the Chamber is the top non-disclosing outside spender in seven of those races, spending an average of $1.7 million per state.

  • In the twenty-three House races in which the Chamber has spent over $11.5 million, it is the top spender in all but two of them.

  • The Chamber has spent mainly to either support Republicans or attack Democrats. The only money it spent against Republicans came early in the year during GOP primaries to support business-friendly Republican candidates.

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Thanks to weak campaign finance laws, however, we will likely never know who exactly is bankrolling this massive presence in the midterm elections. “When large corporations decide they want to get their own candidates into office but they don’t want to be seen doing it, they call the US Chamber,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “These politicians then push for anti-environmental, anti-consumer and anti-health policies and priorities that hurt everyday Americans.”

Read Next: Why GOP control of the Senate would be a disaster

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