George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

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

House Democrats Hope Paul Ryan’s Comments Spark Poverty Conversation

Barbara Lee

Representative Barbara Lee (Reuters/Jason Lee)

Washington’s approach to the war on poverty endured a dramatic episode this week when Representative Paul Ryan made inflammatory remarks about the “culture” of America’s inner cities. The 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee chairman told a conservative radio program that “we have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

Representative Barbara Lee hit back quickly in a widely noted statement: “My colleague Congressman Ryan’s comments about ‘inner-city’ poverty are a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated,” Lee said. “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”

On Thursday, Lee revealed to a small group of reporters that she has spoken with Ryan about his remarks—and that the two plan to meet to discuss them soon. “I’ve talked to him. We’re going to get together about it. It was a good conversation,” Lee told the reporters, in the office of House minority whip Steny Hoyer. The two convened the briefing to push their anti-poverty message and their effort to get long-term unemployment insurance and a minimum wage increase passed through the House.

Lee said she hopes the controversy can spark a broader conversation about poverty in Congress. “At least the debate is beginning,” she said, noting that Ryan recently conducted a “poverty tour” through several states. “It’s a good debate, that should have happened twenty-five years ago.”

Hoyer agreed that Ryan’s remarks might end up serving a purpose. “Frankly, I think Ryan raising it is a positive. Because it puts it out there as an area of concern,” Hoyer said.

Conciliatory as the two might have sounded, they repeatedly and at length took issue with Ryan’s framing.

“I think part of the issue with a lot of members is, they just don’t get it,” said Lee. “They don’t understand when they make comments such as this that—race is a factor in America, regardless of what you think. And I think Paul Ryan does not quite understand that.”

Hoyer echoed those comments, and said that Ryan’s racial framing served to turn people off from really addressing the issue of poverty. “The majority of poverty is not in inner cities, and the majority of poverty is not minorities,” he said. “Some people don’t understand that, [and] they simplify. And as a result, it undermines the concern of some people because they think it’s not them.”

House Democrats are pushing discharge petitions on the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment benefits. (The meeting occurred just before the Senate reportedly reached a deal to pass an unemployment benefit extension out of that chamber.)

The discharge petitions allow for a vote on each respective measure once there are 218 signees—the operating theory is that there may be enough votes to pass both bills, but House Speaker John Boehner won’t allow the votes to occur.

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The prospect of either petition reaching 218 is slim, but Democrats feel it allows them to put Republican members who claim they’d support either of the measures on the spot, so they can no longer say they support say, a minimum wage increase, but just haven’t had the chance to vote on it.

The petitions are no doubt a last-ditch effort, but House Democrats are feeling desperate. Hoyer openly admitted that the body in which he serves has made poverty matters worse in the past three years. “There’s no doubt we’ve exacerbated it. By our negligence or by our refusal to act, we’ve made poverty worse,” he said. “We’ve made the status of families in America worse, and we’ve hurt our economy.”

Read Next: Eric Holder pushes for reduced drug sentences.

In Spying Scandal, Did Obama Just Take the CIA’s Side?

President Obama

President Obama speaks about the NSA from the Justice Department on January 17, 2014. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Late Wednesday afternoon, a White House pool reporter asked President Obama about the explosive allegations made by Senator Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday morning that the CIA was spying on, and removed documents from, congressional staffers who were investigating Bush-era torture.

The question came during a brief media availability at a White House event on women and families. Obama’s response, in full:

The first day I came into office, I ended the practices that are subject to the investigation by the Senate committee, and have been very clear that I believed they were contrary to our values as a country. Since that time, we have worked with the Senate committee so that the report that they are putting forward is well informed and what I have said is that I am absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as the report is completed. In fact, I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report and send it to us and we will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past and that can help guide us as we move forward.

With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it and that’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point. But the one thing that I want to emphasize is that the substantive issue, which is how do we operate even when we are threatened, even when even gone through extraordinary trauma has to be consistent with the rule of law and our values. And I acted on that on the first day and that hasn’t changed.

About 95 percent of Obama’s remarks involve declassifying the 6,300-page Senate report on “enhanced interrogation” by the CIA, and he restates his desire to have the report be made public.

But the president’s one line on the CIA-Senate debate is deeply troubling: “With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, [Director] John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it and that’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point.”

Here’s the problem: Obama’s framing in that sentence very much wades into the debate.

The important context here is the Department of Justice is running two parallel investigations into the CIA’s removal of the so-called “Panetta review”—one into wrongdoing by the Intelligence Committee, and one into CIA wrongdoing.

The CIA claims that Senate staffers illegally obtained a copy of that review, which damns the CIA for it’s role in Bush-era interrogations and is at odds with public statements from the CIA.

But Feinstein strenuously, and at great length, contested that claim in her Senate floor speech on Tuesday. She explained how the Panetta review came into the committee’s possession: either by intentional or unintentional disclosure by the CIA while turning over the 6.2 million documents related to the interrogation program, or by a “whistle-blower” either at the agency or working for the private contracting firm that was vetting the documents. She went on to explain that the Senate Legal Counsel affirmed to her that these were not classified documents, and that the committee was permitted to have them.

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Furthermore, Feinstein explicitly alleged that the CIA’s referral of a criminal report might have been an effort to intimidate Senate investigators.

So when Obama says that “John Brennan has referred [the matter] to the appropriate authorities,” it reads as an implicit rebuke of the intimidation charge. That he mentions only the allegation of Senate misconduct by Brennan and not the parallel investigation into CIA wrongdoing is also troubling.

Obama’s remarks came on the heels of a revelation by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney earlier on Wednesday that the White House was aware of the criminal complaint the CIA planned to file against Senate investigators, but did not intervene.

Feinstein’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Obama’s remarks from The Nation.


Read Next: Frederick Schwartz on why we need a new Church Committee

Senate Investigation of Bush-Era Torture Erupts Into Constitutional Crisis

Dianne Feinstein

Senator Dianne Feinstein is trailed by reporters at the US Capitol in Washington on March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

A gripping battle between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee broke into public view Tuesday morning, as Senator Dianne Feinstein openly accused the CIA of spying on congressional staffers as they investigated the agency’s illegal detention and interrogation programs under President George W. Bush.

Feinstein’s allegations raise grave questions about how the executive branch interprets constitutional separation of powers, along with raising serious concerns about the integrity of congressional oversight of US intelligence agencies. And lurking in the background is the country’s dirty history of torture following the September 11 terror attacks, which top officials—including those appointed by President Obama—seem determined to brush into the dustbin of history.

In a lengthy speech on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, which you can read here, Feinstein explained how the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she chairs, has come to believe that the CIA infiltrated Senate computers in order to see what investigators had learned about the Bush-era torture programs. She also described the removal of crucial documents from those computers by the CIA.

How We Got Here

The backstory is crucial here, and the issues of congressional oversight and constitutional separation of powers echo throughout.

In 2002, the Bush administration authorized the CIA to begin detaining terror suspects and subjecting them to “enhanced interrogation techniques”—measures that most people now recognize with the less sanitary word: torture.

For years, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were unaware of this program, save the chair and vice chair. The full committee was abruptly informed of the program by then-CIA Director Michael Hayden in September 2006, only hours before President Bush announced the existence of the program to the public. About a year later, The New York Times reported that the CIA was destroying videotapes of the first “enhanced” interrogations conducted by the agency.

By then, Democrats had taken control of the Senate and demanded answers. Hayden explained to the committee that the videotapes had to be destroyed, but that the CIA possessed paper records and operational cables that were “a more than adequate representation” of what was on the video tapes. He allowed committee investigators to review those documents, which they did over a period of years, culminating in 2009.

What they found was “chilling,” in the words of Feinstein this morning—the interrogations were “far different and far more harsh” than what the CIA had been admitting. Feinstein then wanted a full review of the program by Senate Intelligence Committee, which it approved by a 14-1 vote.

Initially, as she noted this morning, Feinstein wanted the CIA to turn over all relevant documents to the committee in their usual offices, as had been done in the past. Then—CIA Director Leon Panetta, who had been appointed by Barack Obama and confirmed just a month earlier, had other ideas.

Panetta wanted the review to take place at a secure CIA facility in Northern Virginia—something that would seem to undermine an independent congressional review. But, as Feinstein outlined in her speech Tuesday, an agreement was reached with agency officials in which the Senate review would take place on secure computers, but at the CIA facility:

Per an exchange of letters in 2009, then-Vice Chairman Bond, then-Director Panetta, and I agreed in an exchange of letters that the CIA was to provide a “stand-alone computer system” with a “network drive” “segregated from CIA networks” for the committee that would only be accessed by information technology personnel at the CIA—who would “not be permitted to” “share information from the system with other [CIA] personnel, except as otherwise authorized by the committee.”

It’s important to understand that this computer system in effect belonged to Congress, which was conducting crucial oversight of the executive branch as protected by the Constitution. It was this computer system that Feinstein alleges was infiltrated by the CIA.

The CIA began transferring hundreds of thousands, and then millions, of documents related to the enhanced interrogation program to these Senate computers. But it didn’t take long for problems to arise. In 2010, Senate investigators realized that the CIA had removed over 900 files it had initially transferred to them—something Feinstein revealed for the first time Tuesday morning during her speech on the Senate floor.

At first the CIA claimed no files had been removed, then blamed it on the private contractors who were helping the agency vet the documents, and then ultimately blamed it on an order from the White House. The administration denied giving any such order and brokered a peace between Feinstein and the CIA, which included a CIA apology.

But soon a far more severe breach arose.

The Internal Panetta Review

Let’s skip ahead a little bit first, and then get to the other, more crucial breach. In December 2012, the Intelligence Committee completed its 6,300-page review of the Bush administration’s torture programs. The public has not seen this report, as it remains classified, but it has been described as “searing” and highly critical of the CIA and the Bush administration. The CIA has reviewed the report and agrees with some of it, but disagrees strongly with other parts—generally the most damning ones.

But that public stance directly conflicts internal agency analysis. Over the course of the committee investigation, staffers discovered what has been come to be known as the internal “Panetta review.” This was essentially a report ordered by Panetta examining the documents that were being turned over to Congress, in an effort to get a grip on what exactly was being revealed. The committee has a partial version of this review on its computers, Feinstein said, as well as a printed-out, redacted hard copy in a secure location inside the Hart Senate Office building.

By all accounts, the Panetta review is damning. The public first learned of it in December, when Senator Mark Udall referenced it in an open confirmation hearing for CIA General Counsel Dianne Krass. “It appears that [the CIA’s internal detention and interrogation program review], which was initiated by former Director Panetta, is consistent with the Intelligence committee’s report, but amazingly it conflicts with the official CIA response,” Udall said during the hearing.

Feinstein also described the Panetta review this morning as quite critical of the CIA programs, and described “analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing.”

Naturally the Panetta review is a monumentally important document that appears to undermine—in the CIA’s own words—the agency’s public dismissals of the most serious criticisms of Bush-era torture. It is this document that Feinstein alleged Tuesday morning was taken from Senate computers by the CIA.

Here’s what Feinstein described Tuesday morning:

At some time after the committee staff identified and reviewed the Internal Panetta Review documents, access to the vast majority of them was removed by the CIA. We believe this happened in 2010 but we have no way of knowing the specifics. Nor do we know why the documents were removed. The staff was focused on reviewing the tens of thousands of new documents that continued to arrive on a regular basis. […]

Shortly [after Udall’s comments], on January 15, 2014, CIA Director Brennan requested an emergency meeting to inform me and Vice Chairman Chambliss that without prior notification or approval, CIA personnel had conducted a “search”—that was John Brennan’s word—of the committee computers at the offsite facility. This search involved not only a search of documents provided to the committee by the CIA, but also a search of the ”stand alone” and “walled-off” committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications.

According to Brennan, the computer search was conducted in response to indications that some members of the committee staff might already have had access to the Internal Panetta Review. The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the Internal Review, or how we obtained it.

Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers.

A short time later, CIA Director John Brennan was interviewed at a Council on Foreign Relations event by NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell. He denied “spying” on the Senate, though closely examined, his language does not directly contradict what Feinstein alleged on the Senate floor only hours earlier.

“We weren’t trying to block anything,” Brennan said. “The matter is being dealt with in an appropriate way, being look at by the right authorities, and the facts will come out,” he added. “But let me assure you the CIA was in no way spying on [the committee] or the Senate.” He also denied “hacking.” Depending on how one defines spying and hacking, it’s possible Brennan was still allowing for the existence of the “search” that Feinstein alleges Brennan himself disclosed to her.

The Implications

If what Feinstein alleges is true, it essentially amounts to a constitutional crisis. And she said as much during her speech, describing “a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence community.”

“I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the Speech and Debate clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function,” Feinstein said. “Besides the constitutional implications, the CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.”

There’s also the issue of intimidation. The media reports that have been bubbling up recently around this issue have suggested that Senate investigators illegally obtained the Panetta review—some even raised the specter of hacking by the Senate investigators. The CIA went so far as to file a crime report with the Department of Justice, accusing Senate staffers of illegally obtaining the Panetta review.

Tuesday morning, Feinstein strenuously denied the review was illegally obtained, and asserted it was included in the 6.2 million files turned over by the CIA and describing at length why Senate lawyers felt it was a lawful document for the committee to possess.

And, in a remarkable statement, Feinstein accused the CIA of intimidation by filing the crime report. “[T]here is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime. I view the acting general counsel’s referral [to DoJ] as a potential effort to intimidate this staff—and I am not taking it lightly.”

Feinstein went on to note one fairly amazing fact. The (acting) general counsel she referred to, who filed the complaint with DoJ, was a lawyer in the CIA’s counterterrorism center beginning in 2004. That means he was directly involved in legal justifications for the torture program.

“And now this individual is sending a crimes report to the Department of Justice on the actions of congressional staff,” she noted gravely. “The same congressional staff who researched and drafted a report that details how CIA officers—including the acting general counsel himself—provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice about the program.”

Remaining Questions

There are several crucial questions going forward.

(1) What else did the CIA do to conduct surveillance on the committee? Feinstein included an interesting aside in her speech. “Let me note: because the CIA has refused to answer the questions in my January 23 letter, and the CIA inspector general review is ongoing, I have limited information about exactly what the CIA did in conducting its search.” This seems to strongly suggest the CIA took other measures to conduct surveillance on Congress besides broaching the committee computer system.

What may these have been? There are a couple possibilities, though we should stress this is pure speculation.

During her speech, Feinstein went to great lengths to describe how the committee also had a physical copy of portions of the Panetta review secured inside the Hart Senate Office Building. She stressed that the documents were properly redacted and transported, and described how access to them is controlled.

Is it possible the CIA gained access to that room to see what the committee possessed in hard-copy form? Again, we should stress Feinstein does not allege this, and that she also said the copy “remains” in Hart. But it would be reasonable to think that if the CIA went to such lengths to see what the committee had in electronic form, it might want to see the physical copies as well. While hacking versus a breaking-and-entering intrusion into a physical space is a distinction without any real difference in a legal sense, a physical CIA break-in of Senate offices would no doubt crank up the temperature of this imbroglio by several degrees.

Also: remember that earlier this year, in response to a question from Senator Bernie Sanders, the National Security Agency did not expressly deny spying on Congress. The NSA may just have been being careful with its language, reasoning that since bulk data collection exists, perhaps members of Congress were caught up in it. But the question remains: if the CIA felt justified spying on Senate computers, may it have listened in on phone calls as well?

(2) Will Obama respond, and what will he say? Feinstein’s grave concerns were echoed Tuesday morning by Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This is not just about getting to the truth of the CIA’s shameful use of torture. This is also about the core founding principle of the separation of powers, and the future of this institution and its oversight role,” Leahy said in a statement. “The Senate is bigger than any one Senator. Senators come and go, but the Senate endures. The members of the Senate must stand up in defense of this institution, the Constitution, and the values upon which this nation was founded.”

So we have the respective chairs of the Senate Intelligence and Senate Judiciary Committees publicly accusing the executive branch—which is controlled by their own party—of stepping across a very serious constitutional line. It cannot be stressed enough that this is a serious crisis.

Can President Obama, himself a constitutional law scholar, avoid comment? If not, what will he say?

For the moment, the White House is saying nothing. Press Secretary Jay Carney gave very little in the way of answers or opinions Tuesday afternoon during his daily briefing, and declined to even characterize Obama as “concerned.” Carney also expressed the president’s “great confidence” in Brennan and the intelligence community.

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(3) Will the Senate Intelligence report on Bush-era torture ultimately be declassified? Underlying this constitutional crisis is a desire by many at the CIA to sweep the Bush-era torture abuses under the rug. That logically would be the clear motivating factor in seizing the Panetta review from Senate investigators.

And Brennan wasn’t afraid to keep pushing that approach—even during the same Tuesday interview with NBC’s Mitchell in which he denied “spying” on the Senate. Brennan also said that the CIA’s history of detention and interrogation should be “put behind us.” (It should be noted, of course, that there is strong circumstantial evidence that Brennan himself was complicit in the illegal torture program when he served in the Bush administration.)

In the wake of her revelations on Tuesday, Feinstein renewed her desire to declassify the Senate report. “We’re not going to stop. I intend to move to have the findings, conclusions and the executive summary of the report sent to the president for declassification and release to the American people,” she said, and suggested the findings will shock the public. “If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

Obama has long said he supports declassification, and it seems it will happen soon. Tuesday, Feinstein was already moving to hold a committee vote on declassification. Committee Republicans will likely oppose it, but independent Senator Angus King, the swing vote, told reporters he is inclined to vote for declassification.


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Rick Perry at CPAC Panel on Criminal Justice: ‘Shut Prisons Down. Save That Money.’

CPAC Panel

Rick Perry (L) makes a remark as Grover Norquist (C) and Bernard Kerik listen during a panel discussion on "Criminal Justice Reform" at CPAC (Reuters/Mike Theiler). 

Pat Nolan strode to the podium and rattled off the facts: more than 2 million Americans are in prison, meaning one in every hundred adults is incarcerated. Fewer than half of those in prison are there for violent crimes; most are drug offenders; and state budgets are badly strained by maintaining this system. Then he read a quote: “Only a nation that’s rich and stupid would continue to pour billions into a system that leaves prisoners unreformed, victims ignored and communities still living in fear of crime.”

This wasn’t an ACLU convention nor an academic confab, however—it was the Conservative Political Action Conference, the infamous annual showcase of the far-right boundaries of the Republican Party. Just before this panel on criminal justice reform began, former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was onstage accusing President Obama of lying about Benghazi and pronouncing that “the IRS is a criminal enterprise.”

But the panel was far more substantive. Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke at length about unnecessarily punitive mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, as well as the wisdom of drug courts that divert addicts out of the penal system and into treatment. During his time as governor, Perry has become one of the more aggressive prison reformers in the country. In 2011, the state actually closed a prison because it couldn’t be filled thanks in large part to the declining incarceration rate. (Before Perry, George W. Bush oversaw the construction of thirty-eight new prisons.)

“You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said. “Stop the recidivism rates—lower them. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.”

Then there was former New York City Police Chief Bernie Kerik, who no doubt has a unique view on the criminal justice system: aside from being police chief and running Rikers Island, he also was incarcerated for three years on conspiracy and tax fraud charges.

Kerik spoke passionately about the number of people he met in federal prison who who were there for nonviolent drug offenses—people who got ten years for drugs “the weight of a nickel.”

“If somebody told me I would go to prison and meet some really good people, I would have laughed in their face. The reality is, I met some really good men. Decent men. Good fathers, good family men,” Kerik said.

“We’ve got to create alternatives, and we have to stop putting people in prison that don’t necessarily have to be there to learn their mistake,” he continued.

Given that it was of course a political conference, the anti-tax crusader and guardian of the Republican brand Grover Norquist was there to provide the political calculus behind passing real prison reform. His theory was straightforward: as a matter of political necessity, the effort had to be lead by conservatives.

“If I walked in and said ‘It’s a really good idea, they did this in Vermont.’ They’d laugh at you. Even if it was a good idea,” Norquist said, putting an emphasis on Vermont you imagine he also reserves for Venezuela. “Only coming from the right can serious criminal justice reform that saves taxpayer’s money, that saves American lives, [emerge].”

Norquist struggled to explain exactly why this was. He said conservatives had the right federalist approach by starting the reform movement in the states, but naturally state penal systems have to be reformed at that level, while the federal criminal code must be addressed by Congress.

The most Norquist could ultimately muster was an empty cheap shot: “Our friends on the left have zero credibility when it comes to focusing on reducing criminal activity, and punishing people who deserve to be punished.”

But, at heart, Norquist isn’t wrong on the strategy. Buy-in from the left and right is surely needed to enact real reform, and the CPAC panel reflected ongoing, noteworthy momentum on that front. Republicans aren’t just declining to criticize Democratic efforts at reform but trying to out-muscle them and claim the issue.

There were, of course, huge blind spots during the discussion. The all-white panel literally never mentioned racial disparities in sentencing—one of the most glaring injustices in America’s criminal justice system. The only glancing mention of race at all came when Kerik noted that “black kids with felony convictions” have a hard time re-entering society.

Rather, the unfairness of the criminal justice system was presented in a way that dovetailed with the more typical CPAC jeremiads.

Several panelists portrayed the federal prison system as full of people locked up because of over-burdensome regulations; Kerik mentioned two fellow prisoners who were there because they sold a whale’s tooth and some night vision goggles online. Nolan, the moderator, ticked off a list of hilariously esoteric crimes people are supposedly in prison for, like “inadvertently mislabeling a shipment of orchids” and “packaging lobster in plastic bags instead of cardboard.”

Nolan also suggested federal prosecutors had it in for conservatives (and perhaps white college athletes). “Think of the resources wasted on witch hunts against Dinesh D’Souza, Scooter Libby, the Duke Lacrosse team and Senator Ted Stevens,” he bemoaned.

Though the high number of nonviolent drug offenders was mentioned over and over again, nobody ever revealed that blacks make of 50 percent of state and local prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes, nor that black kids are ten times more likely than white kids to be picked up for drug offenses despite being less likely to use drugs.

The drug war couldn’t possibly be conceived as racially motivated—instead, the panelists had to cook up some extremely unusual reasons for why so many people were in jail for possessing trivial amounts of drugs. “For the bureaucrats, it’s easier to pick on these first-time offenders that are small cogs in the chain. Taking on a big kingpin means your family and you are threated by it, and unfortunately a lot of bureaucrats are afraid. And so they go after the numbers of small people,” said Nolan.

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The reforms pushed by the panel were limited in other ways, too. There was no small irony in having Rick Perry talk about criminal justice reform, since he has presided over more executions than any other figure in American history, including at the execution of at least one likely innocent man. Naturally, the death penalty never came up.

But perhaps one shouldn’t expect the CPAC set to talk in terms of the prison system as a new Jim Crow. Maybe it’s enough to just be heartened when a popular conservative like Perry says things like this: “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, give them no chance at redemption, is not what America is about.”

That’s how he closed his remarks—well, right before launching into a non-sequitur about the Keystone XL pipeline and unfair federal taxes, almost as if he had to close on a note that reassured the audience he was still one of them.

Moments later, everything was back to normal. Ralph Reed was onstage noting gravely that “there is, in truth, a war on religion and a war on religious values being waged by this administration and their radical allies.” Then he went on to compare Obama to George Wallace.


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Campaign to Address the Student Loan Crisis Launches

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren speaks at the launch of the Higher Ed Not Debt campaign in Washington, DC, March 6, 2014. (Generation Progress/Layla Zaidane)

Cumulative student loan debt in the United States has reached an astonishing $1.2 trillion, and it’s rising quickly. It shot up 20 percent just from the end of 2011 to May 2013, faster than even the growth of revolving credit products like credit cards. On average, the student loan debt held by 25-year-olds has gone up 91 percent in the past decade. The problem is exacerbated by tough economic times—nearly one-third of borrowers who have begun repayment are seriously delinquent.

And, as is true of so many issues, Congress has struggled to do anything substantial to solve the problem. Last summer, after it failed to come up with new student loan lending laws, Congress at the last minute prevented student loan interest rates from doubling, but only for new borrowers—no doubt a good move, but tiny in the face of such a large problem. Democrats also attached a measure to the Affordable Care Act that limits repayments to 10 percent of income and forgives debt after twenty years, which is beneficial but similarly a decidedly small-ball approach to the crisis.

Most higher education analysts agree drastic measures are needed—and to that end, a new coalition launched this week that aims to push forward radical ideas on how to both reduce the current student loan debt burden, but also make college more affordable going forward.

The “Higher Ed Not Debt” campaign is a coalition made up of a wide variety of groups: big unions (ranging from education unions like AFT and NEA, to bigger labor groups like the AFL-CIO, SEIU and AFSCME) to standard progressive organizing outfits (Progress Now, Working America and Jobs With Justice, to name a few) to big think tanks like the Center for American Progress and Demos.

It has four essential goals:

  • Provide support to borrowers now paying off the $1.2 trillion in student loan debt.

  • Change state funding and financial aid structures to address both the declining quality and increasing cost of higher education.

  • Address the role of Wall Street in the increasing financialization of student loan products, as well as the privatization of funding outlets.

  • Civic engagement and education on what it means to take on student debt, and how to push legislators to find better answers.

Higher Ed Not Debt’s roadmap is pretty broad—maybe dangerously so, unless they really have the funding, manpower, and wherewithal to pull it off. The coalition will produce extensive reporting and research on the higher education crisis and particularly Wall Street’s role, and also—presumably with the help of the aforementioned think tanks—produce concrete policy proposals. It will naturally have a communications strategy to push out the message, alongside a grassroots organizing push in at least five states to recruit citizens to demand action. Finally, the group plans to get involved in elections to push candidates towards its preferred solutions.

The campaign launched Thursday at the Center for American Progress with some big-name speakers: Senator Elizabeth Warren and AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Warren took a broad approach to the crisis, noting one fundamental problem: only the wealthy are able to avoid the student debt crisis. “If you’re not rich in America, college costs more. It costs more because you have to borrow the money, and pay and pay and pay,” she said. “As a matter of federal policy, we’ve penalized those young people by saying ‘You’re going to pay more for your education than people who have the blessing of being born to a family that can pay for it up front.’”

She noted that the federal government profits from this arrangement—based on the loans made between 2007 and 2012, the Treasury will bank $66 billion in profits. Warren pushed several proposals that for now are stuck in the Senate, but that the campaign aims to prop up.

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One such idea is to enact the Buffet Rule, which closes tax loopholes for the wealthy, and use the money to reduce student interest loan rates. Warren is working with Democratic Senators Dick Durbin, Jack Reed, and Kirstin Gillibrand on a bill that would take the savings from the Buffet Rule and allow students currently holding loan debt to refinance down to 3.86 percent—and if enough savings were brought in from the Buffet Rule where all students could do that and there was still money left over, then allow for refinancing at an even lower rate.

“I think about it this way because I think about the choice America makes. Think about this. Right now in order to finance United States government, we take in billions of dollars in profits off student loans, but permit billionaires to have enough loopholes that they pay at tax rates that can be lower than those of their secretaries,” she said. “It’s about values. Where, as a country, do we believe we should make our investments? Follow the money on this. Invest in billionaires or invest in students. Well, I want to put my money on students.”


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Whistleblower Groups Increase Security Following a Mysterious Break-in

DC Skyline

(AP Photo/J. David Ake)

Sometime during the night of February 11 or the early morning of February 12, an unknown intruder or intruders broke into a downtown DC business office, tried to open a file cabinet, but took nothing—and left. This normally would be unremarkable, except the office belonged to an organization that gave government whistleblowers both protection and a public platform. And it wasn’t the first time such an odd crime occurred at an organization like this.

The break-in, which was first reported by Newsweek, occurred at the Project on Government Oversight, which for thirty years has been exposing government corruption, often via whistleblowers on the inside who come to the group with information.

Its highest-profile case in recent months was when POGO reported that then–Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and perhaps the department’s chief of intelligence, Michael Vickers, leaked sensitive information about the Osama bin Laden raid to the producers of Zero Dark Thirty. Panetta and Vickers faced no repercussions—but the Pentagon did open an investigation into who leaked the information to POGO.

Much of the group’s work focuses on national security and Pentagon waste, but has also focused on issues ranging from the Wall Street/government revolving door to the cozy relationship between the federal government and oil, gas and other extractive industries.

According to a police report from the First District of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, the break-in occurred sometime between 7 pm on February 11, when the last POGO worker went home, and 7 am on February 12, when the office opened.

The intruder or intruders gained entry by “prying open the entry door,” according to the report, and “once inside they attempted to pry open a file cabinet but were unsuccessful.” In the box on the incident report labeled “Is event related to occupation?” the responding officer wrote “yes,” meaning that the break-in is believed to be related to POGO’s work.

POGO’s Joe Newman told The Nation that the file cabinet in question contained accounting information and other “mundane” paperwork, and nothing related to POGO investigations. He said that POGO employees inventoried their files after the break-in, and that “there’s nothing missing that we’re aware of.” Newman said that POGO feels it has good security measures in place, but will now “take measures to increase security.”

Newman noted that several valuable items, like laptops and computer monitors, were out in the open but were not taken. He also said there were no other break-ins reported that night in the larger office building where POGO resides.

He did note, however, that it wasn’t the first time something like this happened at POGO. In 1999, when the office was in a different location, employees were called to the office overnight after the front door was opened and the alarm went off. In 1993, someone broke into POGO at yet another location and “it was clear that they were looking for something, in the sense there were files spread out all over the place,” said Newman.

And incidents like this are not limited to just POGO. When Newsweek broke the news of the POGO break-in, it also disclosed a previously unreported 2011 break-in at the Government Accountability Project, a similar whistleblower group that has recently lent support to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Six computers were stolen in that incident; two belonged to GAP’s national security attorneys and one to its legal director, according to Newsweek.

Jesselyn Radack, GAP’s national security & human rights director and a legal adviser to Snowden, tweeted earlier this week that the 2011 break-in came at the height of the Thomas Drake case. Drake was an NSA whistleblower who was criminally prosecuted for his leaks, and GAP defended him.

A similar, little noticed break-in occurred last summer at a Dallas law firm representing a high-profile State Department whistleblower, Aurelia Fedenisn, who accused the department and its contractors of illicit drug use, sexual crimes and harassment.

Burglars, who were caught on camera but never identified nor apprehended, punched a whole in the wall of an office adjacent to the law firm and then stole three computers, as well as breaking into file cabinets. Silver bars and video equipment, among other valuables, were left untouched. No other offices in the large building in Dallas were broken into.

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Naturally, these could all be random incidents with no relation to the respective organizations’ work. And even if that was the motive, these could easily be unrelated incidents. But no doubt it has whistleblower groups concerned.

“I can’t speculate on [motive],” POGO’s Newman told The Nation when asked if the break-in could have been motivated by a desire to gain sensitive information, or intimidate whistleblowers by giving the impression of an unsecure advocacy group. “But it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility,” Newman added. “The kind of work we do puts us in a place where we’re doing investigations into sensitive areas. There are certainly people out there who would like to know what we’re working on, or to see what we’ve got on them.”

Potential whistleblowers shouldn’t be concerned about POGO’s security measures, he added. “We’re going to continue to safeguard our work. If it was something that was meant to intimidate us, to intimidate potential whistleblowers—we’ve been around the block for thirty years. We’re not going to be intimidated, for sure.”

Read Next: Robert Scheer on two of the most famous whistleblowers, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald.

Obama Preps for Complete US Withdrawal From Afghanistan

Soldiers in Afghanistan

Afghan security forces members and US soldiers arrive at the site of a suicide bombing at a police compound in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, February 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

President Obama spoke with Afghan President Hamid Karzai by phone on Tuesday, for the first time since late June, and finally issued a long-rumored ultimatum: the United States will prepare plans to withdraw all 37,000 US troops from the country in the event a bilateral security agreement isn’t signed.

Karzai has resisted signing that agreement, which a leaked draft indicated would keep a non-trivial US troop presence in the country (rumored to be anywhere between 7,000 and 15,000 soldiers) through “2024 and beyond.” The troops would serve in a support capacity, but would be authorized to conduct “counter-terror” operations as needed. Ultimately, Karzai punted on signing the BSA and said it would be up to his successor, who will be elected sometime this year.

Obama’s ultimatum to sign the BSA or risk a total US troop pullout comes amidst a widening debate in Washington over the war, which is now both the longest and least-popular in US history.

Even the administration is internally divided, according to reports. The Hill asserted in January that a fight was “raging” between the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense over whether to pull all US troops from Afghanistan after 2014.

The report said that the zero-option “is being advocated by some White House officials who believe the US should be spending more money at home versus abroad.” Obama’s ultimatum yesterday might indicate those voices have won at least a partial victory.

On Capitol Hill, more and more legislators are paying attention. As we’ve been reporting, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill demanding Obama consult Congress before entering a new phase of the war in Afghanistan.

The bill, which so far has eight co-sponsors, has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A committee spokesman could not tell The Nation when, or if, it would be given a vote.

But some of the bill’s sponsors welcomed Tuesday’s news of the Obama-Karzai phone call. “I applaud President Obama’s decision to prepare for a complete withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and I hope he will choose this course regardless of who succeeds President Karzai in Afghanistan’s April elections,” said Senator Joe Manchin in a statement. “It is time to bring our troops home from our nation’s longest war.

Meanwhile, however, some pro-war Republicans are starting to speak up and sound familiar refrains about supposed surrender. For a long while the GOP has been loathe to discuss the war at any length—Mitt Romney barely mentioned it during the 2012 campaign—but Representative Buck McKeon, the head of the House Armed Services Committee, delivered a lengthy speech in Washington on Monday that took a stridently anti-withdrawal approach.

McKeon slammed Obama for allegedly failing to acknowledge recent victories in Afghanistan, and said that at times “the president openly campaigned against his own strategy” and “sent his political operatives out to stoke fatigue and hopelessness.”

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Those are weighty charges, and McKeon came awful close to suggesting Obama is aiding the Taliban. “Counterinsurgencies have two fronts—the one out there, and the one right here,” he said. “The troops have held their line out there. The president has not held the line here.”

House Speaker John Boehner, perhaps sensing political opportunity, echoed those sentiments late Tuesday after the Obama-Karzai call and news of the zero-option ultimatum broke. “Over the last year, our commander in chief has often talked more about how we plan to leave Afghanistan than how we are going to achieve our mission,” Boehner said.

The increasing pressure from Republicans for Obama to stay is notable, though may end up being moot. If Karzai’s successor won’t sign a BSA, then the zero-option will almost surely be executed. If Afghanistan is willing to sign it, however, Washington still appears deeply divided on what to do. Meanwhile, the casualties continue to pile up. Far from Washington on Monday, an Oregon family held a quiet funeral for a 22-year-old Army specialist who died from small arms fire in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, earlier this month.


Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss critiques the proposed cuts to the defense budget.

Obama Drops Social Security Cuts From His Budget

Social security checks

Social security checks (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

The White House budget for fiscal year 2015 will not include cuts to Social Security in the form of a Chained-CPI formula to calculate inflation, the Associated Press reported on Thursday. The proposal was included in last year’s White House budget, and Obama has repeatedly offered it in negotiations with the GOP dating back to the 2010 debt ceiling standoff.

The administration was under increasing pressure from liberals inside and outside Congress not to include Chained-CPI in the budget. On February 14, sixteen senators (fifteen Democrats and independent Bernie Sanders) sent Obama a letter asking him not to propose Social Security cuts. On Wednesday, 117 Democrats in the House—more than half the caucus—sent the White House a similar letter. Several progressive groups were also lobbying the White House and rallying members.

The progressive complaints were threefold. One was a simple policy beef. Obama’s proposal from last year would take $9,521 in cumulative benefits from an average 85-year-old on Social Security, even with protections including a small benefit bump at age 75 and protections for the very poor retirees.

After seeing food stamps slashed by $8.5 billion in the recent farm bill and the expiration of long-term unemployment benefits, progressives couldn’t accept that. “These are tough times for our country. With the middle class struggling and more people living in poverty than ever before, we urge you not to propose cuts in your budget to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits—cuts which would make life even more difficult for some of the most vulnerable people in America,” the letter from Senate Democrats said.

Secondly, many Democrats worried about the political fallout from a Democratic president proposing Chained-CPI in an election year. Even though most GOP members support the change, the head of the National Republican Campaign Committee attacked Democrats last year for wanting to cut Social Security after Obama’s budget was released. This year there was a “significant outcry” from Democrats locked in tight races over the potential proposal.

Finally, liberals also worried that repeated inclusion of Chained-CPI in Obama’s budgets would mainstream the idea and make eventual Social Security cuts inevitable.

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On that count, liberals may not have as much reason to celebrate. The White House official who leaked the news to the AP also noted that Chained-CPI would remain on the table if the GOP wanted to engage in new budget talks or another “grand bargain.”

In other words, this wasn’t a substantive move away from austerity by the White House, but rather an assessment of the bargaining atmosphere on Capitol Hill.

Liberals plan to keep pushing forward on that larger battle—and want Obama to actually expand Social Security. “The Social Security COLA already doesn’t reflect the real costs seniors face, and cutting it makes no sense,” said Senator Jeff Merkley in a statement. “Middle-class Americans need retirement security they can depend on, and that starts with keeping Social Security’s promises.”

“This is a huge progressive victory—and greatly increases Democratic chances of taking back the House and keeping the Senate,” said Stephanie Taylor of the Progressive Campaign Change Committee. “Now, the White House should join Elizabeth Warren and others in pushing to expand Social Security benefits to keep up with the rising cost of living.”

Read Next: George Zornick on the battle for an increased minimum wage.

Will a Minimum Wage Hike Really Cost Jobs?

Minimum wage protester

Darlene Handy of Baltimore holds up a sign during a rally to support raising the minimum wage in Maryland. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)  

The Congressional Budget Office lobbed a small grenade into the debate over an increased minimum wage on Tuesday, releasing a report that found an increase to $10.10 an hour by 2016 would increase the wages of 25 million Americans, but also cost the economy around 500,000 jobs.

Here are the CBO’s key findings:

  • Seventeen million Americans would be directly affected by raising the minimum wage gradually to $10.10 by 2016, and 8 million workers who earn above $10.10 would also see indirect wage increases as a result, totalling 25 million Americans who would earn more.

  • A $10.10 wage hike would reduce employment by 0.3 percent, or 500,000 jobs. The CBO warns that “as with any such estimates, however, the actual losses could be smaller or larger; in CBO’s assessment, there is about a two-thirds chance that the effect would be in the range between a very slight reduction in employment and a reduction in employment of one million workers.”

  • Americans who make less than six times the poverty line (that is, $70,020 annual earnings for an individual) would see $19 billion in increased aggregate wages as a result of a minimum wage hike, with 90 percent of that going to people who make less than three times the poverty line ($35,010 in annual earnings for an individual). These are net numbers, meaning they account for the aforementioned job losses.

  • People making less than the poverty line ($11,060 for an individual) would see $5 billion in increased aggregate wages, which again is a net number. The CBO also says 900,000 Americans would be lifted above the poverty line.

  • A minimum wage hike would have no clear impact on the country’s budget deficits even in the long term.

Republicans naturally pounced on the job loss numbers. “This report confirms what we’ve long known: while helping some, mandating higher wages has real costs, including fewer people working,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “With unemployment Americans’ top concern, our focus should be creating—not destroying—jobs for those who need them most.”

The progressive response has been twofold: one, that the CBO’s findings on job loss are out of step with a majority of the economic research, and two, that the big picture tradeoff still makes a minimum wage hike a good deal.

Several economists Tuesday, including Jason Furman and Betsy Stevenson at the White House, stressed that the CBO report doesn’t match the “consensus view” of economists.

It’s not that the CBO cooked the books or had serious methodological problems, they say. But what the CBO did was a meta-analysis of economic data: in other words, instead of running its own empirical study on the employment effect of minimum wage increases, the CBO simply looked at a bunch of existing studies and did an analysis of that body of work.

Past meta-analyses have found that, of the many studies that have been done, the conclusions cluster around zero for job loss estimates:

The CBO of course found a slightly higher number. Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz told reporters on a Tuesday afternoon conference call held by the Economic Policy Institute that he would quibble with the heft CBO gave to some studies versus others. “When you do a meta-analysis, the question is how do you weight different studies. Some of the studies come closer to being controlled experiments, and therefore have more credibility with most economists,” he said. “The CBO analysis I think underestimated the benefits and overestimated the costs in several respects.”

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Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University, told reporters that he thinks perhaps the CBO used a slightly higher number for elasticity of labor market demand than was necessary. “At every stage they’re being a little higher than I would do, but I think they’re trying to be reasonable at reading the evidence, and as they stress, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

But in the bigger picture, many economists said the trade-off would still be worth it even if one accepted the job loss numbers.

“I’ve worked for longer than I care to remember on policies and programs to reduce poverty and to improve living conditions at the bottom,” said Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “When you have a policy that adds $5 billion in income to people under the poverty line, and lifts nearly one million of them above the poverty line…and you get all of these net gains for no federal budgetary cost, that’s a pretty good endorsement of this as a positive policy to go forward.”

Take Action: Tell Congress That It's Time to Raise the Minimum Wage

Obama Signs Executive Order on Federal Contractor Wages Today

Democrats are planning a yearlong campaign against economic inequality as the midterm elections approach, and President Obama will kick it off in earnest Wednesday when he signs an executive order raising the contracting standards for workers on federal contracts. Over 300,000 future federal workers who would have made less than $10.10 an hour will now receive at least that.

The move is significant for a few reasons, the first being the obvious matter of fairness for these contract workers. The federal government, through contracting, employs millions of low-wage workers in a variety of large and small industries, as this chart from the think tank Demos shows:

That taxpayers are, in effect, underwriting low-wage jobs is problematic not only for these workers, but in a symbolic sense as well. The executive order Obama will sign Wednesday is hopefully a shift in thinking for Washington policymakers when it comes to substandard wages.

It also puts some muscle into Obama’s promise, repeated often during the 2014 State of the Union address, to use executive actions to get around a Congress that seems hopelessly gridlocked.

The order will unfortunately not affect workers on current federal contracts. White House officials believe changing their wages immediately would be impossible. The Procurement Act allows the president to modify contracting standards as long as the changes are both economic and efficient, and senior White House officials told The Nation that forcing changes to already signed contracts would likely violate that standard and provoke legal challenges.

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But the good news is that federal contracts last only five years, so that’s the maximum amount of time it will take for all federal contract workers to be operating under the new standards.

There was some uproar last month among advocates for the disabled, because it appeared that Obama’s order would not apply to thousands of disabled workers on federal contracts. But Mike Elk of In These Times reports that the order will indeed include wage standards for those workers as well.

That victory underscores a larger victory for progressive activism here. The White House initially said it was unwilling to sign this order absent congressional action, but focused campaigns from think tanks, organizers and unions apparently changed the White House’s mind. That’s a lesson activists will take to heart as the year progresses.

Read Next: what to do, read and watch to learn about—and support—raising the national the minimum wage

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