Posted on May 11, 2018 in Countdown

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On Route to the Dumbest War

Donald Trump has succeeded in destroying President Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Trump has withdrawn from the Iran Deal, which was a commonsense agreement joined by our European allies to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and avert another disastrous and unnecessary war in the Middle East. The operative language being the “joint” part of the deal so Iran and the Europeans have announced they plan to move forward without us since everyone in the world knew Iran was complying with the deal. Good times!  Netanyahu, who pretends to be the most concerned about Iranian nukes and has the TED-light talk to prove it, was loving Trump’s announcement.  Israel’s real goal, of course, is to constrain Iran’s behavior in the region, which would be a reasonable concern if raised by a peaceful, law-abiding state that’s minding its own business. But our aggression-prone, neighbor-occupying, nuclear-armed friend doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on, though still they struck the Iranians in Syria multiple times, trying to provoke a confrontation, and we got one (thankfully it was just a skirmish this time). Meanwhile (get this), the Trump Administration is demanding that Iran continue complying with its obligations under the Iran Deal (yes, the very deal Trump just violated). It’s as if the Bibi/Trump duo is itching for a war, and boy have they surrounded themselves with the best cheerleaders for one. Interestingly, some key U.S. Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have joined that chorus too. Our European friends, however, are still acting like adults, but there is no telling of whether they can avert the worst-case scenario. Let’s hope… No, let’s work to keep the worst from happening.

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Promoting the Torture Regime

CIA nominee Gina Haspel stepped up to her confirmation hearing knowing full well what the focus would be. After all, she ran a CIA black site in Thailand wherein prisoners were tortured, and she was involved in the destruction of video evidence of CIA torture, and even there she couldn’t keep her story consistent with CIA records.  Though she stated at the hearing that she would not restart a torture program at the CIA, none of her answers adequately addressed the fact that we tortured people and that it was wrong. Moral compass aside, Haspel expressed contradictory positions, stating both that torture doesn’t work and that it can and has retrieve valuable information from people. When Senator Collins (R-ME) asked if Haspel would comply with an order from Trump to use torture, she stated, “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that.” There were audible laughs in the room. Trump has repeatedly supported the use of torture, once stating in a debate, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” In a concerning exchange with Senator Harris (D-CA), Haspel refused to say that torture is immoral. The vote on Haspel won’t be strictly partisan, as notably Senator Paul (R-KY) will vote against her (and yes, we typed that with a smile reflecting on his vote FOR Pompeo), and Senator Manchin (D-WV) will vote for her. Senator McCain (R-AZ), a victim of torture himself, called on the Senate to oppose Haspel, though he will not be able to cast a vote himself, due to illness. Stay tuned.

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Democracy in Action

There are major primary elections almost every week in the month of May – which is only slightly higher than the doctor-recommended number of election servings per month for a healthy democracy. Twelve states will have primary elections over the course of the three Tuesdays of this month. While multiple candidates competed in crowded and sometimes cut-throat primaries across the country, some elections also involved ballot initiatives. Last Tuesday, Ohio voters approved a ballot measure that changes the congressional map-making process. Proponents such as Common Cause Ohio say the measure will curb partisan gerrymandering as it includes safeguards to make it difficult for one party to draw district lines and give itself unfair advantages in elections. While this Ohioan measure received bipartisan support, many national and state-level party groups are not as thrilled about anti-gerrymandering efforts. With eight more primary elections to go, we’re excited to see which candidates and ballot measures make it through in the Month of May.

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The Fish Rots from the Acting Head

John Gore pulled a fast one on congress Tuesday. The acting head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department was a conspicuous no-show at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing on the 2020 Census. Committee members were not amused with the ruse, though it was perhaps the best entertainment C-SPAN has provided in some time. Noting that most of his questions were actually intended “for the witness that did not come,” committee chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) informed his fellow lawmakers he would subpoena Gore and “make [him] listen,” if necessary. A follow-up hearing is scheduled for May 18, and you best believe we’ll be watching. Why? Because John Gore is the guy who drafted the DOJ’s last-minute request to the Census Bureau for an additional untested citizenship question on the 2020 survey, something we and numerous civil rights organizations seriously oppose. According to the folks at DOJ, the citizenship question has been added to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This defense is flimsy, at best, especially when you consider Gore made his career as a private attorney defending violations of the landmark civil rights law. In the end, all we’re asking for is officials who show up for civil rights, not to mention their hearings.

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The government is watching us. Are we watching them?

At a time when congressional oversight is perhaps more important than ever (yes, we’re talking threat level fake-tan orange), the legislative branch appears resigned, if not willing, to overlook the abuses of federal agencies. As required by the 2015 USA FREEDOM Act, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) published its annual transparency report on the NSA’s 2017 surveillance activities. While the release was met with little fanfare, the report’s content is alarming: the NSA collected over three times the number of call records it did in 2016; warrantless surveillance under FISA Section 702 also surged some 20 percent. At the same time, the report suggests the government is depending less on surveillance authorities requiring a court order. While this might sound like a good thing, it’s not. The drop likely indicates the government is simply circumventing congressional restrictions on surveillance. All this points to the need for increased oversight and renewed demands for transparency. Congress must investigate the details of this report and call upon the administration to explain other worrying developments regarding surveillance, including the establishment of the National Vetting Center and proposals for continuous, automated surveillance of social media activities. Congress, we’re watching you watch them watch us, and we demand action. We repeat, the NSA collected over three times the number of call records it did in 2016; warrantless surveillance under FISA Section 702 also surged some 20 percent.

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