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“NRA Corpses Pile Up”: The NRA’s Day Of Reckoning Will Come, And Maybe Sooner Than We All Think

Can the National Rifle Association ever be defeated?

I can’t blame you if you’re thinking “no.” It won again this week, as everyone knew it would. But someday, this dam will break.

I admit that these last few days give us little basis for hope, but I do think Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy’s filibuster had some impact in forcing a vote, albeit an unsuccessful one. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell controls the calendar, decides what gets to the floor. He didn’t have to schedule these votes. Granted, his real motivation was undoubtedly to give that small number of Republican incumbents from purple or blue states a chance to cast a reasonable-seeming vote on guns.

But public pressure exists, and polling is through the roof on support for banning the purchase of guns by people on terror-watch and no-fly lists. Murphy’s stand galvanized gun-control forces.

After the Newtown shooting in December of 2012, it took five months for the Senate to hold a vote. This time it took a week. That may not seem like much, especially given that both efforts came to the same bleak end, but this is progress of a sort. These things take a long time.

It was mildly encouraging, too, to see some red-state Democrats vote for gun legislation sponsored by Dianne Feinstein. To NRA hard-liners, she is Satan. There are four red-state Democrats who risk political suicide if they’re not careful on guns: Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Jon Tester of Montana. All but Heitkamp voted for Feinstein’s amendment to prevent gun purchases by anyone who’s been on a terror watch list for the last five years.

It should be noted that only Donnelly voted for the other Democratic measure, introduced by Murphy and Chuck Schumer, which sought to close the gun-show loophole. And all four of these Democrats opposed a weak amendment from Republican Chuck Grassley.

But ultimately, yes, the votes were election-year theater. Here’s how ridiculous the whole thing is. Maine Republican Susan Collins has this “compromise” bill that would ban purchases of guns by people on the no-fly list. That’s to get Democratic support. Then it allows people to appeal such a decision, which is supposed to lure Republicans, who’ve said they don’t like the ban because some people have been incorrectly put on those lists.

You might think that that would mean that enough senators from both parties could vote yes. But as of Tuesday afternoon, a Senate source explained to me, no other Republican had yet signed on to Collins’s bill. A small number presumably would—Mark Kirk of Illinois, who’s facing a tough reelection fight in a very blue state, maybe a few others. But Collins would need 15 or 16 Republicans to back her to get the 60 votes needed to end cloture. That’s as close to impossible as anything can be.

Now it gets even more baroque: Despite this lack of Republican enthusiasm, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may well give Collins a vote anyway. McConnell, of course, has no personal interest in compromise on this issue. He’s NRA all the way.

However, he probably wants a vote for the sake of Kirk, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson—that is, all the Republicans up for reelection in blue states. It’ll look nice to voters back home that they cast a bipartisan gun vote.

But of course Democratic leader Harry Reid knows this, and so he might respond to such a move by McConnell by encouraging his caucus to vote against the Collins measure, thereby denying Kirk and the rest the desired bipartisan cover. Capische?

So the bill that is an actual compromise, the one bill on which both sides might actually have been able to agree, at least in theory, is the very bill that might lose by something like 95-5.

It’s not just ridiculous. It’s immoral. How high do the carcasses need to pile?

I sense we’re starting to reach the point where we’re going to learn the answer to that question. This just can’t go on forever. For starters, if Hillary Clinton maintains her lead and is elected president, one of the first things she’s going to do is put a liberal on the Supreme Court, making for a 5-4 liberal majority. Even if she settles for Merrick Garland, signs are he’d back gun control measures (the NRA already came out against him).

That could lead to an overturning of District of Columbia v. Heller, which vastly expanded individual gun-ownership rights. Given enough time, and maybe an Anthony Kennedy or a Clarence Thomas retirement and thus a 6-3 liberal majority, it could lead to still bigger changes in gun-law jurisprudence.

That would lead a defensive NRA to try to tighten its grip on Congress even more. And that will probably work, for a time. But it will embolden the anti-NRA forces too. Momentum will then be on their side.

And the mass killings will continue, and the bodies will pile up, and public outrage will grow. And one of these days, there’ll be a tragedy that will make everyone, even the number of Republicans who’d be needed to break a filibuster, say “enough.” It would have to be just the right kind of thing, click all the demographic boxes just right—a white man who bought an assault weapon with no background check and went on a rampage and killed many white people in a heavily Republican part of the country. I’m not wishing this on anyone, but then, I don’t need to. As we continue to do nothing, the odds increase daily that it will happen.

Things look awful until, one day, they suddenly don’t. The day Rosa Parks sat down on that bus, I bet not that many people would have predicted that a president would sign a civil rights bill just nine years later. The evil that is the NRA is so thoroughgoing and so repulsive to most Americans that it just can’t last forever. Newtown and Orlando energized millions of people. The LGBT community, I gather, is going to embrace gun-control as an issue. They’re organized, and they have money and clout. The old saying that pro-gun people vote on that issue while anti-gun people don’t isn’t as true as it once was.

So be angry about what happened. But Wayne LaPierre’s day will come, and maybe sooner than we think. And what a day it will be.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, June 22, 2016

June 23, 2016 Posted by | Chris Murphy, Gun Control, National Rifle Association, Senate Republicans | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Upending The Status Quo”: How Obama Is Shrewdly Using Partisanship To Sideline Netanyahu And Save The Iran Nuclear Deal

The conventional wisdom is that partisanship in Washington, D.C., is one of the biggest obstacles to solving America’s most entrenched problems, from fixing the immigration system to closing the inequality gap. But if the fallout from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s forthcoming address to Congress is any indication, partisanship can be a pretty useful tool when it comes to upending the status quo.

Throughout the controversy, the White House has been happy to run its relationship with Netanyahu through the partisan vortex, helping splinter a bipartisan consensus that was once the most potent domestic threat to a U.S. rapport with Iran — a deal that would constitute the crowning accomplishment of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Of course, Netanyahu has himself to blame more than anyone. By accepting an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to essentially hammer the administration before a joint session of Congress, without notifying the White House or the State Department, he took his longstanding disdain for Obama to new heights. When even Fox News anchors are questioning your treatment of the president, this may be a sign you have crossed a line.

He exacerbated his problems by rejecting an invitation from Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) to privately meet with Democrats, in what they said was an attempt to “balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker Boehner.” Netanyahu explained that the meeting would “compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit,” but it seems his rejection accomplished that just fine on its own.

“Since when does an Israeli prime minister say no to a meeting with Democrats?” bemoaned a former Israeli official to The New York Times. And referring to Durbin and Feinstein, he said, “By the way, their Israeli voting record is impeccable. Not good, not very good, impeccable.”

This gets to the crux of the problem for Obama, as he potentially heads into the final stretch of a years-long attempt to reach a deal on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He not only has to fend off opposition from Republicans, but staunch pro-Israel members of his own party, some of whom seem intent on passing additional sanctions on Iran to scuttle any deal. The problem is so acute that, as recently as January, Obama faced the prospect of a united Congress overriding his veto for the first time in his presidency.

But that has changed. By aligning himself so plainly with the GOP, Netanyahu may have made it impossible for Democrats to join the Republicans. As Dov Zakheim writes at Foreign Policy, “Netanyahu’s determination to address Congress has all but destroyed any chance the Hill’s passing new sanctions and overriding a presidential veto. The deal will therefore go ahead.”

The Obama administration appears to realize this, taking the fight to Netanyahu in a highly public way. The White House made clear it would snub Netanyahu, saying both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden would not meet with him. It still has not said who (if anyone) will be attending the annual summit this weekend of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. [Update: Rice and Samantha Powers, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., will attend.] Then this week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Netanyhu’s speech was “destructive” to U.S.-Israeli relations — not “unhelpful” or any other boilerplate diplomatic language, but “destructive.”

Then Secretary of State John Kerry used his testimony on Wednesday to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to remind everyone that Netanyahu supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Never mind that Kerry was for it before he was against it — he noted that Netanyahu is a hysterical hawk and associated the Israeli prime minister with the most divisive foreign policy issue of the last generation. After all, everyone knows that there is little rank-and-file Democrats hate more than the Iraq War and those who egged the Bush administration on. (Kerry’s attack was all the more remarkable given the fact that his friendship with Netanyahu goes back to the 1970s.)

This is all bad news for those who believe that a U.S. accord with Iran would spell doom for Israel. But for those who believe that diplomacy and negotiations are far better than the alternatives, they might have partisanship to thank.

 

By: Ryu Spaeth, The Week, February 27, 2015

March 3, 2015 Posted by | Benjamin Netanyahu, Congress, Foreign Policy | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Whose Values Did The Torture Program Uphold?”: We Can Press For Those Responsible To Be Held Accountable

Who are we?

That’s one question begged by the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s torture of detainees after Sept. 11. There are other questions, but this may be the key one. And it is getting harder to answer.

“That’s not who we are,” President Barack Obama declared of the abusive pressure tactics used by American interrogators on detainees in foreign holding tanks, supposedly to extract information about terror plots. But some of those seem so gratuitously abhorrent, it’s a stretch to even call them interrogations. Where is the interrogation component of force-feeding people their meals rectally? How much valid information could you get on the 17th day of one long, round-the-clock interrogation? What investigatory purpose is served by leaving a prisoner naked until he dies of hypothermia?

Politicians may quibble over the semantics of the practices and the politics of the report’s release, just before Democrats lose control of the Senate. Apologists for the program, both from the Bush administration and the CIA, reject the word “torture.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney goes so far as to call the 6,300-page report “full of c–p,” even as he acknowledges no authorization was given for rectal force-feeding. Call it what you want, but when the purpose is to terrify, degrade, in some cases bring people convicted of no crime to the brink of death, and leave them emotionally and physically broken down, one can only hope those tactics would be anathema to most Americans.

Elected leaders, including Obama, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose committee brought out the report, and Republican Sen. John McCain, who knows torture first-hand, believe its release will show the world, as Feinstein said, “that we are in fact a just and lawful society.” McCain said Americans need to know “when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies.”

Whose values did the program uphold — The CIA’s? The Bush administration’s? That’s hard to answer since the report doesn’t look at individual culpability. Cheney’s justifications aside, the CIA did not inform the administration or get approval for some measures. On the other hand, secret legal memos sent by the Bush administration set forth a covert CIA program abroad to conduct such interrogations. Officials claimed an anti-torture treaty only applied inside the U.S. And though one of Obama’s first acts in office was to ban those practices, even Obama officials reportedly considered upholding the interpretation.

So, who are we? Are there two different sets of American values to employ selectively, according to circumstances? Was the CIA satisfying itself that the ends justify the means, even though those harsh techniques were of little ultimate value in capturing Osama bin Laden? Did agents grow oblivious to the boundary lines and become dehumanized like the Abu Ghraib captors, rogue elements with enough power to abuse? Or were they opportunists like James Mitchell, the Florida psychologist who designed and implemented the program with his partner for a cool $80 million, though never schooled in the mindset or tactics of al-Qaida?

Now that this has happened, can we still claim to have those shared values in the rule of law? Can we still claim the moral authority to condemn human rights violations in Yemen or North Korea? Even though we braced for global fallout from the report, knowledge of our abhorrent interrogation practices have already contributed to terrorist recruitment efforts, even of U.S. citizens.

Americans are not unique. Like everyone, whether we do bad or good depends largely on the cues we get from our environments. Those who lack faith that the system treats everyone equally might not see a need to play by the rules. Much has been made, for instance, of the looting and rioting in the wake of a Ferguson grand jury’s failure to indict a white police officer for the fatal shooting of an unarmed young black man. Without revisiting the merits of that case or justifying the behavior, there was clearly an element of nihilism that didn’t spring from bad upbringings, as some people have claimed. It reflected a lack of belief that justice is for all. So hold the looters responsible but in the long run, let’s make sure our police forces, prosecutors and courts model the rules of fair play.

We Americans can’t change what took place in our names in secret faraway holding pens, but we can press for those responsible to be held accountable. We can vow not to let it happen again on our watch. We can use our votes and our voices to assert our common values when our leaders sometimes seem to have lost their way.

Who are we? We are the voters and the taxpayers, the office-seekers and marchers and peaceful protesters, guided by an enlightened Constitution, a belief in doing what is right and a democracy that demands our engagement.

 

By: Rekha Basu, Columnist for the Des Moines Register; The National Memo, December 17, 2014

December 18, 2014 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, Rule of Law, Torture | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Forget About The Disasters Of The Past”: On The Islamic State, The Voices Counseling Panic Grow Louder

There’s a new message coalescing around events in the Middle East, coming from Republicans, the media, and even a few Democrats: It’s time to panic. Forget about understanding the complexities of an intricate situation, forget about unintended consequences, forget about the disasters of the past that grew from exactly this mind-set. We have to panic, and we have to panic now.

The centerpiece of every Sunday show yesterday was a sentence that President Obama spoke in a press conference on Thursday. He answered a question about “go[ing] into Syria” by saying that we shouldn’t “put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet.” Naturally, Republicans leaped to argue that Obama wasn’t actually talking about military action in Syria, but about dealing with the Islamic State (or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) more generally, and who knows what else. Many in the media took the same line. The first rule of a “gaffe” is that it should be taken out of context, and then the discussion should quickly be shifted away from whatever it was actually about to how, thus decontextualized, it might be perceived.

So on “Meet the Press,” Andrea Mitchell ignored the fact that the question Obama was answering was about U.S. military action in Syria, and asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, “is the president wrong to signal indecision by saying that we still don’t have a strategy against ISIS?” When that didn’t elicit a sufficiently strong condemnation from Feinstein, Mitchell pressed on: “Doesn’t that project weakness from the White House?” Obviously, there’s nothing worse than “signaling indecision” or “projecting weakness.” Not even, say, invading a country without having a plan for what to do after the bombs stop falling.

Let’s not forget that the Obama administration is already taking military action against the IS by bombing their positions in Iraq. And the military is conducting surveillance flights over Syria in preparation for military action there. But to the war caucus, whose advice has proven so calamitous in the past, it’s not big enough and it’s not fast enough.

And let’s be clear about this, too: the position of the people who pretend to be horrified at Obama’s “gaffe” about not having a strategy for invading Syria is that we don’t need a strategy. As Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — a man who wants to be commander in chief — said, “we ought to bomb them back to the stone age.” Having a carefully constructed plan that takes into account not just what you want to blow up but what the consequences of American action will be in the coming months and years? That’s for wimps. We should just invade, yesterday if possible, and worry about all the messy stuff later. After all, it worked in Iraq in 2003, right?

We should be able to agree on at least one thing: Anyone proposing large-scale military action in Iraq and/or Syria ought to be required to explain exactly how and why it will achieve the goal of destroying the IS, and exactly why the unintended consequences that result from some kind of invasion won’t be worse than those that would grow from a more carefully planned course of action. “Just start bombing already!” doesn’t qualify as an explanation.

If the war advocates ever get around to thinking about those consequences, they may come up with a compelling case for why proceeding carefully is a mistake, and why the dangers of acting methodically are greater than the dangers of acting with maximal force as soon as possible. They could be right. I think most Americans would be willing to listen. But they haven’t even tried to make that case. Instead, what we’re hearing is a lot like what we heard in 2003: The clock is ticking, the danger is rising, if we stop to think then we’re all gonna die.

As Michael Cohen wrote over the weekend, “if there is any one lesson from the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the nearly 13 years since Sept. 11, 2001 it is that — exceptionalist rhetoric notwithstanding — America is far from omnipotent.” Obama has always understood that fact, to the endless exasperation of Republicans who would prefer to believe, in defiance of all evidence, that there is no problem that can’t be solved with sufficient deployment of U.S. munitions. And his impulse to use calming rhetoric is anathema to those (in both the GOP and media) who mistake bellicose fist-shaking for “strength.” But Cohen’s smart and measured op-ed ran inside a newspaper with the screaming headline “ISIS WILL BE HERE SOON” on its front page. The voices of panic are getting louder.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, September 1, 2014

September 3, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Middle East, War Hawks | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Paranoid Concerns”: Making A Mountain Out Of A Digital Molehill

The revelations this week that the federal government has been scooping up records of telephone calls inside the United States for seven years, and secretly collecting information from Internet companies on foreigners overseas for nearly six years, have elicited predictable outrage from liberals and civil libertarians.

Is the United States no better than those governed by repressive dictators who have no regard for individual rights? Could President Obama credibly raise human rights issues with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at a summit meeting on Friday, if America is running its own vast surveillance state? Has Mr. Obama, for all his talk of ending the “war on terror,” taken data mining to new levels unimagined by his predecessor, George W. Bush?

Hold it just a minute.

From what has been made public, we know that the F.B.I., under the Obama administration, used its powers under the Patriot Act to seek these records; that judges with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved these searches; and that members of Congress with oversight powers over the intelligence community were briefed about the searches. Some of them, like Senators Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, and Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, were uncomfortable with the scope of the data gathering and made their disapproval public, even though secrecy rules prohibited them from being more specific about their concerns, until now.

It is evident, then, that all three branches of government were involved in the records search afoot at the telecommunications carriers and Internet companies. Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which Congress passed after 9/11, governed the executive branch’s search authority. Oversight committees were kept in the loop, as Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has confirmed. And the authorizations were approved by life-tenured federal judges who are sworn to uphold the Constitution, including the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. On the surface, our system of checks and balances seems to be working.

We cannot rule out the possibility that the voluminous records obtained by the government might, some day, be illegally misused. But there is no evidence so far that that has occurred.

First, no contents of phone conversations are being provided to the government. Indeed, the Patriot Act precludes provision of call contents.

Second, the two senators who complained in public, Mr. Wyden and Mr. Udall, apparently were in a minority on the committee. Otherwise, the bipartisan committee could have held hearings, either in closed or open session, to seek further details and prepare legislation to limit the F.B.I.’s data-gathering powers.

Third, unlike you and me, federal judges on the surveillance court, established in 1978, reviewed the government’s request for information and the reasons provided to support the request. We do know that the search requests have required periodic renewal. And we know that, for reasons the judges thought sufficient, the contents of the order were sealed, with special mention that it was not to be available to foreign entities. Judge Roger Vinson, who signed the July order extending the requirement that Verizon furnish phone logs, struck a balance: he put a time limit on the data-gathering, to ensure executive accountability, but also issued a secrecy order, to protect national security.

But shouldn’t I be concerned that F.B.I. agents are trampling my rights, just like the I.R.S. might have trampled the rights of certain organizations seeking tax-exempt status? As it turns out, the answer is no. The raw “metadata” requested will not be directly seen by any F.B.I. agent.

Rather, a computer will sort through the millions of calls and isolate a very small number for further scrutiny. Perhaps one of the numbers was called by one of the Tsarnaev brothers before the Boston Marathon bombings. Or perhaps a call was placed by a Verizon customer to a known operative of Al Qaeda. The Supreme Court long ago authorized law enforcement agencies to obtain call logs — albeit on paper rather than from a computer database — without full probable cause to believe a crime had been committed.

To listen to the contents of any particular call or to place a wiretap on a particular phone, the F.B.I. would have to go back to a judge for a more detailed order, this time showing probable cause sufficient to meet stringent Fourth Amendment standards. Otherwise, the evidence from the call could not be used to prosecute the caller or call recipient. Privacy rights, in short, have been minimally intruded upon for national security protections.

Finally, let’s consider the alternative some activist groups and media organizations seek: more narrowly tailored gathering of records, and full transparency after the fact about what kinds of records have been obtained. There are obvious problems with this approach. Let’s say the judicial order leaked to The Guardian this week had specified the phone numbers about which the F.B.I. had concerns. Releasing those numbers would surely have tipped off the people using those numbers, or their associates, and caused them to change their mode of communicating. Already, there is a real probability that individuals planning terrorist activities are using channels of communication that will not show up in the databases of service providers. If the order revealed more expansively the standards the F.B.I. used to seek broad sets of records, again those seeking to avoid detection for terrorism-related activities could simply change their methods of doing business.

In short, I think I will take my chances and trust the three branches of government involved in the Verizon request to look out for my interest. Privacy advocates, civil libertarians, small-government activists and liberal media organizations are, of course, are welcome to continue working to keep them honest. But I will move back to my daily activities, free from paranoid concerns that my government is spying on me.

 

By: Charles Shanor, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, June 7, 2013

June 8, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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