George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

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

The Sword Drops on Food Stamps

A sign announcing the acceptance of electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

It’s official: Congress will slash food stamp funding in the midst of a deep economic recession, when more people rely on food stamps than ever before.

Monday night, the Senate passed a five-year farm bill that contained $4.1 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over ten years. This ensures that the only debate now will be about how much to cut—and it’s likely to result in cuts much deeper than $4.1 billion.

The House Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill last month that cut $20.5 billion from SNAP by removing “categorical eligibility” (more on that here), which would take food stamps away from 2 million Americans and hundreds of thousands of children.

That bill has yet to be fully debated and passed on the House floor, and the push to make the cuts even deeper will be strong—conservatives have insisted on even deeper cuts. Representative Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget, for example, called for $135 billion in food stamp cuts, and on Tuesday, twenty-five House Republicans wrote to House Speaker John Boehner to remove food stamp funding from the bill altogether. (They just want the program debated on a separate track, but the barely implicit message in the letter is that they don’t want to be forced to agree to “only” $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts at the risk of killing the farm bill.)

The House bill, once passed, will head to conference committee, and the negotiators will have to reach a consensus number. Without question, it won’t be lower than $4.1 billion.

Why did Democrats in the Senate head down this road? Some attempted not to—Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill last month that blocked any food stamp cuts, but only twenty-five of her colleagues, and zero Republicans, voted for it. It failed 70-26.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture committee, has defended the cuts as designed only to stop “waste, fraud and abuse” in the SNAP program, and urged Democrats to vote against Gillibrand’s bill. “Every family that currently qualifies for nutrition assistance in this country continues to get that assistance,” she said. “We do make sure there is integrity in the programs.”

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That’s not really what the bill does, however. It cuts $4.1 billion by eliminating the “Heat and Eat” programs adopted by several states that coordinate low-income heating assistance with SNAP benefits, thus allowing a slightly larger benefit. The Coalition on Human Needs explains:

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have opted to provide SNAP households with a nominal [Low Income Heating Assistance Program] payment, so that instead of having to provide burdensome monthly documentation of their shelter and heating/utility bills, they can deduct a standard allowance from their income, thereby increasing the amount of SNAP benefits they qualify for. This “Heat and Eat” approach disproportionately helps seniors and those with disabilities, who pay a high proportion of their income on shelter costs. Without this coordinated approach, such households may lose $50—$75 a month in SNAP benefits.

Aside from being, well, cruel, the food stamp cuts in the Senate bill are also damaging to the economy. The Center for American Progress, in a study released in March, found that for every $1 billion cut from SNAP, 13,718 jobs are lost:

So the Senate bill, by that calculation, will cost 56,243 jobs. CAP noted the losses “will likely have the greatest impact on younger workers, since they account for a disproportionate share of workers in food-related industries.”

The only hope now to at least moderate the cuts is a band of House Democrats who have pledged to fight the food stamp cuts ferociously, as we reported last month.

AT&T’s deregulation campaign will hurt low-income Americans, people of color and rural communities. Read Leticia Miranda’s report here.

Remember When NSA Surveillance Was Used to Help Launch the Iraq War?

A government building burns during heavy bombardment of Baghdad, Iraq, by United States-led forces on March 21, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay) 

Many Washington policymakers and journalists have framed the NSA surveillance controversy as a debate between privacy and security. Proponents of the data dragnets argue straightforwardly that it is necessary to protect Americans from terrorists. “I flew over the World Trade Center going to Senator [Frank] Lautenberg’s funeral, and in the distance was the Statue of Liberty. And I thought of those bodies jumping out of that building, hitting the canopy,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said on Sunday. “Part of our obligation is keeping Americans safe.”

Opponents often accept the same frame, but argue that the country has traded away too much privacy. “I want our law enforcement people to be vigorous in going after terrorists.” Senator Bernie Sanders told Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s All In Monday night. “But I happen to believe they can do that without disregarding the constitution of the United States or the civil liberties of the American people.”

But what if the government abuses the vast surveillance power it is accumulating? What if the NSA is used for political purposes, not safety? This is often left out of the debate, or dismissed outright. Eric Posner wrote at The New York Times website that “I am unaware—and correct me if I am wrong—of a single instance during the last 12 years of war-on-terror-related surveillance in which the government used information obtained for security purposes to target a political opponent, dissenter or critic.”

Unfortunately, the NSA has already abused its surveillance power in at least one case where political opponents were targeted, and it’s a big one.

In 2003, a woman named Katharine Gun, who was working for a British intelligence agency, leaked a memo to the press from an NSA agent named Frank Koza. It described a massive American effort to monitor the communications of six delegations to the United Nations—the so-called “Middle Six” who were undecided on authorizing the Iraq War and who were being fiercely courted by both sides.

Here’s what memo said, in part. (Note “the Agency” is the NSA):

As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc—the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises. In RT, that means a QRC surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.

We’ve also asked ALL RT topi’s to emphasize and make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/ debates/ votes. We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can’t afford to ignore this possible source.

The British newspaper The Observer had three former intelligence officials confirm its authenticity, and confirmed that indeed a man named Frank Koza worked at the NSA. The British government tacitly admitted the memo was real by charging Gun with violating the Official Secrets Act. The charges were later dropped when the British government was worried it would have to disclose secret legal advice about the war during the trial.

James Bamford, a veteran journalist covering the NSA, confirmed the account in his book and said it extended to monitoring United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq. At the time, however, US media outlets covered the story lightly, or ignored it completely, in the case of The New York Times.

So here is a clear case where the US government used its surveillance powers—ostensibly in place for national security—to target political opponents and advance an invasion of Iraq. The memo states explicitly that the surveillance is being used to “give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises.”

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While this may be news to many people fiercely debating the NSA this week, it is not news to the United Nations. It has already accepted illegal surveillance as a part of international diplomacy. Here’s what several United Nations official told Foreign Policy this week:

Several U.N. based diplomats and officials interviewed for this story said they shared similar expectations—that most of their electronic and digital communications are being monitored by friendly and unfriendly governments.

“I think we all assume all of our emails are being monitored by all sorts of countries,” said one senior U.N. official, who like most others interviewed for this piece spoke by telephone or communicated by email on the condition of anonymity.

One chief argument made by civil libertarians is that massive surveillance power will inevitably lead to abuse—that the mission will creep from security to political and diplomatic applications. The fact is, it already has.

So one must then wonder: Where does it go next?

For more NSA coverage, Bob Dreyfuss pushes back against those comparing Obama's surveillance scandal to those of Nixon, Bush.

Immigration Reform Gets Real: What to Look For

John Cornyn. (Courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore)

After months of behind-the-scenes haggling and committee work—and really, years and years of organizing, activism and elections—comprehensive immigration reform will have its moment on the big stage of the Senate floor this week.

Monday evening, the Senate will hold a roll call vote on a five-year farm bill, and assuming there are no hitches, will then begin floor debate on immigration reform. It will take weeks, but Democrats want the debate wrapped up and a bill passed by the July 1 recess.

As it stands now, the legislation (known officially as Senate bill 744, The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013) creates a path to citizenship for most—but not all—of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in America. That’s a huge step forward, and Congress hasn’t seriously debated anything like it since 1986.

But it also spends $5.5 billion over ten years on border security, on top of the $18 billion the country spends annually on border enforcement, more than all other law enforcement activities combines. The ACLU warns that the legislation “creates the kind of militarized environment along our southern border that is extremely costly, harmful to border communities’ quality of life, and enormously inefficient.”

Over the coming weeks, a fascinating push-and-pull will happen through the amendment process. Senate conservatives will propose measures that, if they pass, would amount to a “poison pill” that renders the entire legislation un-passable because Democrats wouldn’t be able to support it. Meanwhile, pro-reform activists and senators will be attempting to push the bill as far towards justice as is possible, with the aim of including the most possible people and removing as many roadblocks as possible.

Here are a few of the major flashpoints to watch for:

Senator John Cornyn’s border security amendment. Things will get interesting right away, as the Texas Senator and minority whip in the Senate will introduce a measure this week that basically tears out all the border security sections agreed upon by the “Gang of Eight” and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and replaces them with much tougher—and to most Democrats and reformers, unacceptable—requirements.

Cornyn’s amendment would deny undocumented immigrants permanent residency until there was 100 percent surveillance of every mile of the southern border, a 90 percent apprehension rate, a national E-Verify system, and a biometric ID system at all airports and ports. The head of the Department of Homeland Security and the Government Accountability office would be the arbiters of whether those goals were met. He would also require even more spending on border enforcement, and narrow the group of people eligible for citizenship further by excluding “serious misdemeanors.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already deemed these provisions unacceptable, and said this weekend:

QUESTION: How far are you willing to compromise on this bill to make it happen? In other words, what are you willing to give up and what is a deal-breaker?

REID: Well, I will not accept any poison pills. I mean, we have a senator from Texas, Senator Cornyn, who wants to change border security, a trigger, saying that it has to be 100 percent border security, or there’ll be no bill. That’s a poison pill….we’re not going to have big changes in this legislation.

The question now is obviously whether Cornyn can marshal enough votes—he would need all Republicans and some conservative Democrats—to pass the amendment. Just as important will be how Senate conservatives react if the amendment failed. Senator Marco Rubio hasn’t explicitly backed Cornyn’s amendment but has certainly suggested he favors it. If it fails, will Rubio declare the process dead and walk away?

Rubio’s own border security measures. Despite Harry Reid’s declaration that no “major changes” to the bill will be made, Rubio has repeatedly insisted that the legislation must move to the right in order to pass.

In particular, Rubio has said he will introduce a measure that makes Congress, not the executive branch, responsible for deeming that certain triggers have been met before citizenship can be granted. He also wants to further limit the government benefits that provisional immigrants can receive.

Democrats oppose these measures but haven’t thrown down the gauntlet as they have with Cornyn. Some degree of compromise with Rubio will be likely, but how far? At what point do the Democrats say no? At what point would Rubio walk away?

Agitation by far-right senators. There’s a group of far-right conservatives in the Senate who have made it pretty clear they oppose immigration reform outright. One of the leaders of this movement, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is proposing all kinds of extreme amendments, like 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the southern border and exit visa tracking at every point of entry in the United States, not just air and sea.

The question isn’t really whether these will pass—they won’t—but how much Sessions is able to rile up the right-wing base when they fail.

Until now the far right has been relatively quiet on immigration reform. There have been no rallies against reform, as there were in 2007, and evangelical churches are playing a key role in calling for real reform.

Sessions’ floor speeches and media appearances are basically more important than his amendments. His goal isn’t really to change the bill—he can’t—but to wake up and shake up the base. His op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on Monday is a good demonstration of this effort. “Should it pass, [this legislation] would represent the ultimate triumph of the Washington elite over the everyday citizen to whom Congress properly owes its loyalty,” he wrote.

Who is eligible? Senators are going to keep trying to both trim and expand the number of people eligible for citizenship.

The headline will be Senator Patrick Leahy’s effort to include LGBT immigrants in reform, so that all partners are eligible for benefits and citizenship that until now is limited to straight immigrants and their families. Leahy was unable to marshal many of his fellow Democrats on the committee to support it, let alone any Republicans—who again, are having their rear covered at this point by evangelical churches—and the amendment is likely to fail on the Senate floor.

Activists are also focusing on the cut-off date in the bill: anyone who came after December 11, 2011, is ineligible for any path to citizenship. So hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came since then would continue living in a shadow society, and some senators may try to push that date forward. There is also serious concern about the list of criminal offenses that can lead to denial of citizenship and deportation, that reformers view as “quite extreme.”

But some senators are trying to pull it in the other direction. There is Cornyn’s aforementioned effort to expand the list of criminal offenses that ultimately lead to denial of citizenship. Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, is set to introduce an amendment that would force the children of undocumented immigrants to get a college degree or join the military before receiving citizenship.

Congress, White House on NSA Spying: Nothing to See Here

This photograph shows a copy of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis," to give the National Security Administration (NSA) information on all landline and mobile telephone calls of Verizon Business in its systems. (AP Photo)

For several years, Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Mark Udall have been ominously warning that the federal government has been interpreting the Patriot Act in a way that would shock the public. In a 2011 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, they wrote:

We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.

Late Wednesday night, we finally learned what Wyden and Udall meant, at least in part. Glenn Greenwald published a blockbuster story disclosing the existence of an April 25 order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), which required Verizon to provide the National Security Agency information on all telephone calls placed by Verizon’s Business Services clients on an “ongoing, daily basis.”

While the document Greenwald obtained only relates to a ninety-day period, ending July 19, and only involves Verizon Business Services clients, it’s very likely just a snapshot of a much broader data-gathering effort by the NSA.

In 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA was vacuuming up the call data of tens of millions of Americans, from several different major carriers. Greenwald’s story confirms that this effort continues today, and it would be extremely surprising if the effort was only limited to one service offered by one carrier.

The order does not give the NSA permission to eavesdrop on phone calls, but does give them access to so-called “meta-data.” This means the NSA has a massive database of phone numbers and the serial number of the phone associated with it; which other phones it contacts and for how long;and potentially the geographic location of the user.

The order does not allow the NSA to get the names or addresses of the users at this stage, though the government can go back to FISA for permission to do so. Still, privacy experts warn that metadata allows government intelligence analysts to “build detailed picture of individuals’ lives.”

Finally able to speak publicly about the surveillance, Wyden was quick to blast it on Thursday. “The program…is one that I have been concerned about for years,” Wyden said. “I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information. Collecting this data about every single phone call that every American makes every day would be a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy.”

Most of Wyden’s colleagues, however, don’t appear to share his outrage, nor does the White House. Senate leaders and administration officials have mounted a multi-pronged defense of the spying program: (1) that it’s crucial to protecting the country from terrorist attacks, (2) that it’s essentially harmless because it doesn’t collect your name nor listen to your communications, (3) that it’s been going on for years, and that (4) don’t blame us, because the other branch of government knows about it too.

It’s worth probing these claims in a little detail. The primary claim here is that we need this program to keep us safe. “The information of the sort described in the article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror,” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One today.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill the same. “I read intelligence carefully, and I know that people are trying to get to us. This is the reason why we keep [NSA] doing what it’s doing,” she said. “It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.”

But that’s easily contradicted—by people like, say, Dianne Feinstein. Only moments earlier, she said this:

As you know, and I’ve pointed out many times, there have been approximately 100 plots and also arrests made since 2009 by the FBI. I do not know to what extent metadata was used or if it was used, but I do know this: That terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence.

So, the massive metadata sweep is key to stopping terrorist plots—except we don’t know if it’s actually ever worked. Representative Mike Rogers claimed later in the day that the NSA program has disrupted a specific domestic terror plot, but couldn’t reveal the details. Defenders of torture under President George W. Bush often made ultimately unsubstantiated claims of its efficacy, so it’s worth treating these claims lightly until more details come out.

But moreover, even if it has “worked,” can the government justify the program? Senator Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the intelligence committee said Thursday that “we have gathered significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.” But that’s clearly not true—tens of millions of records are being collected. “The president welcomes a discussion of the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties,” Earnest said. Ideally, Greenwald’s story will spur that conversation.

The next point made by government officials is that the program is more benign than civil libertarians assert. “The order reprinted overnight does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls,” Earnest said. “As you know, this is just metadata. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication,” Feinstein reminded reporters.

This directly contradicts the efficacy argument, however—either the program works at ferreting out individuals and their communications, or it doesn’t.

The final arguments are that the program is legal, and thus not scandalous. Also, proponents argue that it has been approved by all three branches of government, which serves to spread the blame around and limit political fallout.

This is a little confusing. It’s legal because these lawmakers made it so. As Marcy Wheeler notes, there were several attempts—most recently in 2011, led by Wyden—to reword Section 215 of the Patriot Act so that it was much more restrictive, and couldn’t be used to create a data dragnet. But a majority of members of Congress, of both parties—and backed strongly by the administration—quashed these efforts.

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At the heart of the controversy, then, is why it’s legal, and if it should be. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has launched a drive to re-examine the matter, and Representatives John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler and Bobby Scott have already called for hearings.

In the Senate, Dick Durbin, who led earlier efforts to reign in Section 215, is calling for the same. “As I said when I offered my amendment in 2009, ‘someday the cloak will be lifted and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society—transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution,’” he said. “Today that cloak has been lifted and this important debate must begin again.”

Read John Nichols on the need of senators to step up to defend privacy rights. 

Senate, Military Brass Clash on Handling Sexual Assault

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Through eight nearly uninterrupted hours of testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, nobody—not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing each branch of the military, nor the top judge advocates general for each service, nor any of the assembled senators on the Armed Services committee—contested that military sexual assault has reached crisis proportions.

The numbers lead to that indisputable conclusion: “unwanted sexual contact” cases have risen 35 percent in the last two years alone. Up to 45 percent of women in the military experience sexual assault or unwanted contact at some point, and the Department of Defense itself estimates that as many as 86 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported. And women in the military are nine times as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they’ve experienced sexual assault in the military, even when controlling for combat exposure.

The hearing was a historic, and often dramatic, attempt to face this crisis head on. But there was a central fissure in the meeting between the military commanders and most—but certainly not all—of the senators.

Namely, has the sexual assault crisis in the military destroyed the fundamental trust between enlisted members and their commanders, who are tasked with policing and largely with adjudicating the crimes? And thus, should sexual assault cases be taken out of the chain of command entirely?

As it stands now, if one experiences sexual assault in the military, the first (and only) step is to notify the commanding officer. That officer then has sole discretion on whether to take action, and whether that action is anything from a slap on the wrist for the offender to referral to a court martial.

But commanders are the wrong people to handle these claims, victims’ advocates contend, for reasons ranging from a lack of legal experience, potential unwillingness to declare there is a problem in their unit, a lax attitude towards sexual assault, to cases where the commanders themselves are the perpetrators.

This leads to a pervasive, and accurate, perception within he military that sexual assault isn’t taken seriously, which not only discourages victims from coming forward—as the Pentagon’s own numbers demonstrate—but creates an atmosphere where predators feel free to act.

During her testimony, Nancy Parrish, president of the victims’ group Protect Our Defenders, read aloud what victimized soldiers have told her group:

One soldier explained: “I got raped.… When I [told] my squad leader I got shut down…. I waited, spoke with my platoon leaders…. I got told if I say another word…I would be charged with adultery.… I told my new squad leader.… In December 2012 they chaptered me on an adjustment disorder.… He is free…wears the Uniform, [it] represents a Protective Shield, if you’re a rapist with rank.”


Last year, an officer of 18 years, on active duty said: “I was deployed overseas. The first advice you get…always carry a knife.… Not for battle. To cut the person who tries to rape you. I was drugged and raped.… If you report you are done.… Check the base IG records…[see] how many complaints were pushed under the rug.”

Senator Kirstin Gillibrand has introduced a bill that would take sexual assault crimes out of the chain of command—so victims would go directly to experienced military prosecutors, who would make a legal judgment whether to proceed. “Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape,” she said during the hearing. “You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases.”

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This was the central focus of the hearing, because it’s where there is the most disagreement—the military brass presented a unified front in opposing Gillibrand’s measure. “Making commanders less responsible and less accountable will not work. It will undermine the readiness of the force,” General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, testified. “Most importantly, it will hamper the timely delivery of justice to the very people we wish to help.”

Only a small number of senators explicitly agreed with this position. Senator James Inhofe said he believes “we can not abolish sexual assault by legislation alone,” and that the policy tweaks included in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act should be given time to work. Those included extra training on sexual assault prevention throughout the military, extra legal assistance for victims and special investigative tools to root out cases. “We’ve made these suggestions,” Inhofe said. “They’ve got to have time to get this done.”

So should the status quo, with some tweaks and extra training, be allowed to continue? It’s pretty easy to build the case that it shouldn’t. Really, one can just look at the numbers—the increasing number of incidents—and end the argument there. It’s not working.

But the military brass themselves, and some of the senators on the panel, also provided some inadvertent evidence that the current system isn’t working—and that attitudes towards sexual assault in the chain of command, leading right up to the men testifying, just isn’t equipped to deal with the problem on its own.

Senator Jack Reed asked each of the joint chiefs if they had removed commanders for failing to deal with sexual assault cases adequately. As it turned out, most of them had not.

Later, Senator Claire McCaskill asked several commanders—there to testify about how they and their colleagues were well-equipped to handle sexual assault cases—whether each of them had ever actually referred a sex assault case to a court martial during their career. One of them, despite being selected to present an image of proactivity, never had.

At other times, the military brass made statements that telegraphed a pretty lax attitude towards sexual assault. General Martin Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told senators that a lot of the cases were “he said, she said….involved alcohol…it’s complicated.” In fairness to Amos, he was explaining how he favored referring them to a court martial regardless, but it seemed as if his below-board attitude was that many of the cases were shaky if not unfounded. (Senator Saxby Chambliss made similar and already infamous comments during the hearing, that sex assaults were a product of “hormones.”)

At another point, Senator Joe Manchin asked why it had taken so long to address this problem—similar hearings were held ten years ago, and the number of cases has only increased. Why?

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs, had a candid answer—once the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan started, they stopped worrying about it. ““I took my eye off the ball,” he admitted. “Some of that stuff, frankly, just got pushed to the side.”

But now military leadership wants Congress to trust them to fix the problem this time—though won’t endorse taking cases out of the chain of command, which has already provably reduced the number of sexual assaults in other militaries, like Israel and Canada.

Gillibrand isn’t buying it. “I was quite disappointed that the military really failed to take this opportunity to lead.” she told All In with Chris Hayes last night. “I think they are too comfortable with the status quo.”

Read about the House Committee side-stepping a hearing on sexual assaults in the Air Force.

Two Crucial Questions for James Comey

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 15, 2007, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding the fired prosecutors. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Obama is prepared to nominate James Comey, a former Department of Justice official under George W. Bush, to head the FBI, according to various press reports.

Comey’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee will present an excellent opportunity to press the administration on two of its biggest failings: an out-of-control security state and a dearth of prosecutions related to the 2008 crash on Wall Street.

Luckily, senators seem ready to ask these questions—and fundamental changes to White House policy are possible if they push hard enough.

Quite a bit of attention has already been paid to Comey’s role in warrantless surveillance by the federal government, which expanded dramatically while he was at the Justice Department. Specifically, we’ve repeatedly heard how Comey, along with then–Attorney General John Ashcroft and current FBI Director Robert Mueller, stood up to Bush and then–White House counsel Alberto Gonzales over their warrantless surveillance of Americans. The men threatened to resign en masse if Bush didn’t scale back that program.

Comey’s heroism in that case forced Bush to stand down, for which Comey and the others deserve due credit. But don’t be confused—warrantless surveillance didn’t stop because of that episode. Bush just agreed to make an as-yet-unknown modification to warrantless surveillance, which continued. (His administration ended the program three years later, and returned to seeking warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts.)

So Comey was essentially on board with federal surveillance outside the FISA court system, just not this particular abuse of it—and as Glenn Greenwald points out in an excellent column, Comey was actually one of the ones who authorized warrantless surveillance in the first place.

This should be disqualifying for the top law enforcement officer in the land. But at the very least, it presents very fertile territory for senators on the intelligence committee to press Comey, and by extension the administration, on the propriety of federal surveillance, which is no doubt continuing with dubious legal justification.

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have repeatedly raised these concerns, specifically regarding how the government and the FISA courts have interpreted Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. While not able to reveal the classified information they are privy to, the two senators have suggested that massive and improper surveillance of Americans is continuing. This was a letter they sent to Attorney General Eric Holder in 2011:

We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says. 

A loose interpretation of Section 215 could allow the government to collect all of our third-party information: meaning our bank accounts, library records, public transit movements, Internet activity, and so on. Is that what it’s doing? Nobody knows.

Wyden and Udall pressed this issue when Obama wanted to extend Mueller’s term two years ago, and could make a huge issue with Comey, especially given his checkered past in Bush’s Department of Justice. Real pressure could lead to changes, or at least more transparency, as demonstrated earlier this year when Wyden went after John Brennan aggressively over the government’s targeted killing program when Brennan was nominated to head the CIA.

During the nomination process, Wyden successfully got the administration to release the secret legal justifications for the drone program, albeit only to members of the committee, and the entire episode no doubt elevated public awareness—and concern—over drones. Obama gave a lengthy defense of his policy this month and promised to scale back the use of drones. There is substantial reason to be skeptical of these promises, and the administration reaction still leaves a lot to be desired, but Wyden certainly helped move the needle.

Unfortunately, neither Wyden nor Udall sit on the judiciary committee, but they could still raise the issue on the Senate floor and threaten a ‘no’ vote. (Neither office responded to inquiries from The Nation about this matter.)

Meanwhile, Comey’s nomination hearings are a great venue to press the administration on its failure to hold big financial firms accountable for demonstrable misconduct leading up to the 2008 collapse.

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Once again, Comey has a questionable past in this area—he worked at a hedge fund in Connecticut after leaving the Bush administration. Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the committee, has already voiced his concerns:

[I]f he’s nominated, he would have to answer questions about his recent work in the hedge fund industry. The administration’s efforts to criminally prosecute Wall Street for its part in the economic downturn have been abysmal, and his agency would have to help build the case against some of his colleagues in this lucrative industry.

One could make the strong case that Comey’s background should disqualify him from leading the FBI, but that’s not likely given his presumed support from both Republicans and administration-friendly Democrats. At the very least, however, concerned senators should be ready to make some noise.

Do your reading—check out this book review of Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Tim Wiener

Massachusetts Senate Race Turns to Gun Control

(AP Photo/Ricardo Moraes)

Six months after the shootings in Newtown, and one month after the Manchin-Toomey gun control legislation died in the Senate, we already have a test case of how the gun control might play out with voters. It has emerged this week as a major issue in the the special election for John Kerry’s vacated Massachusetts Senate seat—and the Republican candidate’s somewhat comical inability to effectively defend his position is perhaps a promising sign for reformers.

Last week, Representative Ed Markey, the Democratic candidate, released a fairly standard campaign ad promising to “fight for common sense laws to stop gun violence.” It noted that the Republican candidate, former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, “is against banning high-capacity magazines like the ones used in the Newtown school shooting.” Watch:

Gomez and the national Republicans flipped out. “Exploiting a tragedy for political gain is sick,” Gomez said in a statement Friday. “Disgusting, Deplorable and Desperate Attack Ads on Former Navy SEAL Par for the Course for Markey,” tweeted the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Gomez doubled down on this defense today, releasing an ad attacking “dirty Ed Markey,” and making an unusually explosive, and fact-stretching, claim: “Now, Markey actually blames Gomez for the Newtown shooting.” Watch:

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It’s fair to say that Gomez is playing loose with the truth here. “Despite what the ad says, Markey has not blamed Gomez for the Newtown shooting,” The Boston Globe had to explain in a straight news story.

Gomez’s over-reaction suggests awareness of serious vulnerability on this issue. And what’s his actual response? He’s not debating a policy point—not attempting to explain why he opposes a ban on high-capacity magazines—but haphazardly trying change the conversation with an inflammatory attempt to play the victim.

His failure to conjure a sensible, post-Newtown argument against better gun laws might be an important tea leaf for the 2014 midterms, as well as the ultimate future of real gun legislation.

It’s useful to recall where the political debate stands. After comprehensive gun-control legislation died in the Senate last month, polls showed that senators who helped kill the bill faced plummeting approval numbers, while those that stood up for the legislation received notable boosts. Since 90 percent of the public favored expanded background checks for gun sales, this dynamic wasn’t very surprising, and it left reformers with two paths forward.

The first was to immediately try to take another bite at the apple: pressure key holdouts like Senators Kelly Ayotte and Jeff Flake to come back to the table, and try to pass a moderated version of the Manchin-Toomey legislation as soon as it became feasible. There have been some whispers about that possibility, but nothing concrete seems to be happening.

The other (not mutually exclusive) approach is to let the public fury build over the next eighteen months and use it as a weapon in the midterm elections. A vote allowing criminals to have guns is a good wedge to separate Republicans from moderate suburban voters, and if the Manchin-Toomey vote helps cost some members their seats, a humbled 114th Congress could take another swing at gun control legislation

This strategy has the added virtue of potentially tougher legislation: instead of having to modify the already weakened Manchin-Toomey bill (bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines were dropped early on, and a large background check exemption for private sales was added at the eleventh hour), reformers could start all over with a much better package.

Markey’s ad is a perfect example of this latter approach: not only is he hitting his opponent for opposing popular gun control legislation, but he’s widening the debate past Manchin-Toomey, and focusing on assault weapons and large clips. (Gomez, to his credit, has repeatedly backed Manchin-Toomey and expanded background checks, leaving assault weapons and high-capacity clips as the major area of distinction.)*

Gomez's response wasn't to defend a position against high-capacity clips, but rather try to change the story. If gun control opponents can’t do any better than Gabriel Gomez at defending their policies, things are looking up for reform.

*This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Gomez supports Manchin-Toomey and closing the gun show loophole.

Walmart helped make the AR-15, which was the weapon used by Adam Lanza, the most popular assault weapon in America, George Zornick writes.

Budget Cuts Endanger Agency That Saved Countless Lives in Oklahoma

A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Many heroes asserted themselves in Oklahoma yesterday, from the first responders digging through the rubble for survivors, to the teachers who shielded children from the massive tornado that touched down as the school day was ending.

While perhaps not as heralded, certainly the experts at the National Weather Service deserve some credit for saving lives as well. One of the best ways to prevent high body counts when tornadoes barrel through populated areas is to warn residents ahead of time—which is the job of the NWS. They did it well yesterday, issuing early warnings allowed countless people to seek shelter before mayhem arrived.

But the NWS has, in recent years, suffered under serious budget restraints placed on it by deficit hawks in Congress and the White House. Far from the public view, the NWS is starting to come apart at the seams—and the full effects of the sequester haven’t even been felt yet. So what if, next time, the NWS isn’t able to do its job as well?

The tornado in Oklahoma yesterday provides a good case study for both the crucial import of the NWS’s work and the very small margin for error. Tornadoes present a particular challenge because, while the conditions that create them are easily identifiable—warm, moist air from the gulf colliding with warm, dry continental air and cold, dry air from the Rockies—the tornadoes themselves are incredibly unpredictable. Scientists still are not sure why some thunderstorms produce them and others do not.

The tornado simply appears, almost out of nowhere. In Oklahoma, it was well over a mile wide, with furious 200 mile per hour winds shredding most everything in its path, which, it quickly became apparent, would include a densely populated suburb. This is what it looked like:

This is a terrifying experience for most involved, but not an uncommon one in America—in fact, 75 percent of all tornadoes occur here. This map from the Smithsonian shows fifty-six years of tornado strikes and the path they took:

When a tornado appears, the National Weather Service sounds the alarm. In Oklahoma on Monday, the alert came sixteen minutes before the tornado actually touched the ground, which is three minutes more than the thirteen-minute average warning the NWS provides. It triggered emergency broadcast alerts throughout the region and blaring air-raid sirens that allowed hundreds of thousands of people to seek shelter.

As a tornado is forming, NWS workers are synthesizing a rapid amount of data from radar, satellites, on-the-ground meteorologists, and citizens calling in what they see. The alerts have to be accurate—and they have to be quick.

“The adrenaline is building up. You’re looking at storms that you know are just really bad,” Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, told The Nation. “It takes a special kind of person because you have to juggle ten or fifteen balls all at the same time, and then make life-and-death decisions based on that.

“It’s an extremely stressful, extremely busy time,” he said. “[It’s like] when an accident is occurring and you have seconds to make a decision as to whether to turn right, or left, or slam on your brakes or whatever—but stretched out over a couple hours. That kind of feeling.”

Five minutes after the tornado touched down on Monday, but twenty minutes before it hit Moore, Oklahoma, the NWS issued a strongly worded “tornado emergency” advisory:

This no doubt saved hundreds of lives in Moore. According to ABC News, the Plaza Towers Elementary School does not have an underground shelter—but the fourth, fifth and sixth grades had enough time to evacuate to a local church, where they remained safe. The entire school building was destroyed.

The NWS deserves enormous credit here. But what if it wasn’t up to the task? That’s an increasingly real possibility. Just this month, Sobien’s group, which represents 4,000 employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (of which NWS is a part), issued a warning that the budget battles are imperiling crucial NWS functions, and creating “[r]educed efficiency and accuracy for tornado events due to reduced alertness of short staffed offices.” Hurricane monitoring and response is also endangered, along with crucial wildfire monitoring efforts and a wide array of other NWS activities.

Since taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans have targeted NOAA for severe cuts—they came out of the gate proposing a massive 28 percent cut in their first budget that year, which was moderated by the end of the process.

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But the assaults on the NOAA budget continued, and the agency couldn’t escape the sequester, which will lop 8.2 percent from the NOAA budget. This lead the acting administrator to institute an across-the-board hiring freeze in March, and four days of mandatory furloughs are on the horizon. (There is already a 10 percent vacancy rate at the agency.)

This is all occurring at an agency that could badly use more money, not less. The satellite equipment there is badly antiquated, and the Government Accountability Office said the “satellite gap” is one of the thirty biggest threats facing the federal government.

“Remember that bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis? The Weather Service is like that bridge a week before it collapsed,” Sobien said. “The strains are happening. I’m just seeing things just not working the way they should be.”

In fact, amidst all the turmoil yesterday, the NWS suffered some notable problems. In the evening a communications outage affected offices in Chicago; Anchorage; Binghamton, New York; and Kentucky, according to Sobien. The Nation confirmed this outage with an official at the NWS office in Chicago.

In addition, Sobien says the NWS office in Midland, Texas—the next office upstream from Oklahoma City that does upper-air surveillance of storms with weather balloons—declined to do a special weather balloon release after the storm to help monitor conditions because of budget concerns. (An official at that office said he was not aware of that particular situation.)

Those ended up being trivial outages, but next time might be different. If a disaster strikes where a NWS office is under-staffed, it’s easy to see how lives could be lost.

“The National Weather Service is an inherent government service, like the Post Office, like the FBI, you can name a dozen others. We had this debate about the National Weather Service a hundred-plus years ago, and said, yeah, this is a service we want for everyone,” Sobien said. “To be dismantling that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Here’s how to help Oklahoma after yesterday’s devastating tornadoes.

Congress Is Ready to Fight Over Deep Food Stamp Cuts

Volunteers fill bags for a school lunch program. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta.)

Late Wednesday night, the House Agriculture Committee passed a comprehensive, $940 billion farm bill. This was a first step towards making a real, five-year bill law—something the last Congress failed to do, and something that, by all accounts, this Congress deems an absolute necessity.

But one central issue could derail the farm legislation once again: food stamp cuts. Republicans are demanding even deeper cuts than what they proposed last year, and Thursday morning on Capitol Hill, several House Democrats made it clear they are willing to let the farm bill die if it contains those steep cuts.

The bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee last night slashed $20.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, $4 billion more than what the committee proposed last year. These cuts would take away food stamps from nearly 2 million people, and several hundred thousand low-income children would stop receiving free school meals.

At a press conference Thursday morning, several prominent Democrats drew red lines around the cuts. “Lest anyone think that this [debate] is going quietly into the night, you have another thing coming,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro. “Maybe, and I can’t say for sure, maybe we’ll take a look at whether this bill can move at all.”

Representative Jim McGovern was more direct. “The $20.5 billion cut in SNAP is a poison pill. It means that we shouldn’t be supporting the farm bill,” he said.

The stakes are extremely high here. The agricultural community—from farmers to the multibillion-dollar industry players—badly wants a new farm bill, and powerful senators from rural states, in particular, are bent on enacting it. President Obama has repeatedly pressed Congress to pass one.

These threats from McGovern and DeLauro, who were joined by Representatives Marcia Fudge and Barbara Lee at Thursday’s event, carry real weight. The backdrop is that many conservatives oppose the House Agriculture committee bill in part because the SNAP cuts are too small—Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget calls for $135 billion in cuts to food stamps and for the program to be block-granted to the states.

Many far-right conservatives will likely oppose the farm bill for this reason, and for many other reasons—voting yes on a nearly trillion-dollar bill isn’t easy for them. That means Democrats will be needed to secure House passage, and if liberal members can mobilize enough colleagues to join them in steadfast opposition to the food stamp cuts, the farm bill might not pass. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did not return a request for comment about how she would instruct members on this issue.)

Even if the bill does pass the House, food stamp cuts could still blow up final passage when the House and Senate try to reconcile their bills. The Senate version of the farm bill cuts one-fifth of what the House proposes. Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon that she would not accept the food stamp provisions of the House bill.

“I absolutely reject the level of cuts [to SNAP] and the way this is done in the House,” Stabenow said. “That policy does not have support in the United States Senate. I won’t support it the conference.”

McGovern said he hopes Obama, too, will prioritize the food stamp fight over simply getting a bill passed. “We need the White House to come up here and help us a little bit on this,” he said. “I really do believe there ought to be a line in the sand drawn, by this White House, that you’re not going to sign a farm bill with any SNAP cuts. Certainly not cuts of $20 billion.”

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The House Agriculture Committee bill cuts SNAP primarily by eliminating “categorical eligibility”—a method that forty states use to make sure needy families get food stamps. The 1996 welfare law allowed states flexibility with food stamp qualification limits by aligning them to more generous rules used under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and that’s the flexibility the GOP wants to eliminate.

Generous, of course, is really a misnomer here. The qualification for food stamps—130 percent of the poverty level—often excludes needy families who technically exceed that limit, but have disposable income well below 130 percent because of childcare and other expenses, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains. Also, the SNAP asset limit of $2,000 hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1986 and has fallen 53 percent in real terms.

So forty states, both red and blue, use the flexibility provided by categorical eligibility to make sure needy families don’t get screwed out of food stamps. If that eligibility is scrapped, as the GOP proposes, the Congressional Budget Office estimates 1.8 million low-income will stop getting food stamps and 210,000 needy children will stop getting free meals at school.

This is an outcome that far-right members of the House proudly champion. “It seems to me that the goal of this administration is to expand the rolls of people who are on SNAP benefits, the purpose of which is to expand the dependency class,” said Representative Steve King during Wednesday’s committee debate.

McGovern and his colleagues also see this debate in moral terms, though naturally very different ones. “Here’s the deal: we have 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry. Seventeen million of them are children. We’re the richest, most powerful country in the world. We all should be ashamed,” he said Thursday.

“The debate around the farm bill yesterday should not have been focused on how we should cut SNAP. We should be talking about how we improve and expand SNAP,” he added. “We should be talking about how we invest more in nutrition, invest more in the effort to end hunger.”

Read George Zornick on another under-covered issue: integrating veterans back into society.

A National Commission to Heal 'Psychic' Wounds of War

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.

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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.

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