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Monday's Mini-Report, 12.15.14

12/15/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* Stunning violence in Australia: "A gunman was killed and two hostages are dead after police stormed a chocolate shop in Sydney on Monday, ending a 16-hour siege by a self-professed sheik."
* Heartening: "Twitter users are offering solidarity with Australian Muslims facing potential backlash after a suspected Islamist held hostages in a Sydney cafe. The standoff eventually ended around 2 a.m. Sydney time after police stormed the store."
* Deadly gun violence in Pennsylvania: "A gunman, suspected in the deaths of six people and wounding of another in three towns across Montgomery County, Pennsylvania Monday morning, is on the loose. Police are actively searching for him and residents of one town are being asked to stay indoors, the Montgomery County district attorney said."
* Newtown: "Ten families touched by the Newtown massacre filed a wrongful death lawsuit Monday against companies that made, distributed and sold the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that Adam Lanza used to kill 20 children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary two years ago. The suit argues that the gun is a military assault weapon that never should have been on the general market."
* ISIS: "President Obama on Monday said that after several months of fighting, the United States and its partners had halted the momentum of Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, making clear to them that Americans will not back down and in the end, 'we will get you.'"
* The Affordable Care Act's open-enrollment period won't end for months, but those hoping to have coverage start on Jan. 1 will have to sign up by tonight.
* The Supreme Court this morning "denied the state of Arizona's request to hear an abortion case. The immediate impact is that Arizona won't be able to enforce the law, which restricts how doctors can administer abortion pills."
* Saturday's massive protests matter: "It was perhaps the largest, most organized national day of protests and civil disobedience in the months-long movement that was born in Ferguson, Missouri and has spread to major cities across the country."
In this June 26, 2008 file photo John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Even John Yoo has his limits

12/15/14 04:13PM

John Yoo's reputation is well deserved. The conservative law professor at UC Berkeley is perhaps best known as the principal author of the Bush/Cheney "torture memos" -- defending the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- during Yoo's tenure at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
And when it came to torture and national security, the conservative lawyer was largely in the "anything goes" category. But apparently, even Yoo has his limits.
As former Vice President Dick Cheney argued on Sunday that the CIA's aggressive interrogation of terrorism suspects did not amount to torture, the man who provided the legal rationale for the program said that in some cases it had perhaps gone too far.
Former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo said the sleep deprivation, rectal feeding and other harsh treatment outlined in a U.S. Senate report last week could violate anti-torture laws.
"If these things happened as they're described in the report ... they were not supposed to be done. And the people who did those are at risk legally because they were acting outside their orders," Yoo said on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS."
In an interview on C-SPAN, Yoo added, "Looking at it now, I think of course you can do these things cumulatively or too much that it would cross the line of the anti-torture statute."
Just to be clear, this is not to suggest Yoo endorses or agrees with the torture report released last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee. On the contrary, it's quite clear that he does not.
But as a political matter, his willingness to draw legal lines now, in light of the new revelations, creates an interesting dynamic.
GOP Rep Scott Perry

GOP rep calls torture report 'almost treasonous'

12/15/14 01:03PM

In the week since the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on Bush-era torture policies, we've seen more than a few unnerving responses from Republicans. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, of course, has offered Cheney-esque condemnations of the findings. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was eager to argue that torture isn't torture.
Jon Chait flagged an especially interesting pair of tweets from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who, in rapid succession, thanked those who carried out the torture policies, and then condemned "human-rights violators" in Venezuela. Chait added, "The cognitive dissonance surely whooshed right over Rubio's elegantly coiffed head."
But if there's a race among Republicans to see who can go the furthest in this debate, Andrew Kaczynski reports that Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) is arguably near the front of the pack.
Republican Rep. Scott Perry says the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's interrogation and detention techniques nearly qualifies as treason.
Speaking with WPHT radio Friday, the Pennsylvania Republican added the Obama administration seems to care more about the rights of terrorists than those of United States citizens.
The far-right congressman said those responsible for releasing the report decided to "empower and embolden our enemies." He added, "This is completely regrettable. I think it, for me, as a military guy, it's almost treasonous, and it borders on treasonous. And it vexes me that this president, this administration, and some of his cohort are happier to be concerned about the rights of savages that will kill every American they can get their hands on, while there seem to be disconcerned [sic] about our rights, and the transparency."
Scott Perry then compared this to the grand jury process in Ferguson, Missouri, for reasons that no doubt make sense to Scott Perry.
Regardless, it's hard to know what possesses congressional Republicans to make comments like these in public.
In this March 27, 2013, file photo, Gov. Bill Haslam speaks to a joint session of the Legislature in Nashville, Tenn.

Another domino falls: Medicaid expansion advances in Tennessee

12/15/14 12:02PM

The more red-state governors embrace Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, the harder it is for the dead-enders to rationalize their obstinacy.
Take Tennessee, for example, where the Commercial Appeal in Memphis reports this morning on another step forward for the policy.
Gov. Bill Haslam plans to introduce his Insure Tennessee plan, an alternative to expanding the state's Medicaid program, at a special session of the legislature in January.
Monday, the governor's administration described a two-year pilot program that "rewards healthy behaviors, prepares members to transition to private coverage, promotes personal responsibility and incentivizes choosing preventative and routine care instead of unnecessary use of emergency rooms."
Haslam, who recently took over as the chair of the Republican Governors Association, will reportedly call a special session of Tennessee's legislature to consider the package he's worked out with the Obama administration.
As is always the case in situations like these, the details make all the difference, and at this point, we don't have enough information about Haslam's model to critique it on the merits.
That said, in the larger context, those who continue to argue that states should reject Medicaid expansion out of partisan spite -- regardless of the benefits for families, regardless of the needs of state hospitals, regardless of the effects on state finances -- are facing headwinds that are only growing stronger.
The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary is pictured in McAlester, Okla. in this April 15, 2008 file photo.

When an execution is 'like a horror movie'

12/15/14 11:10AM

For the most part, American support for capital punishment is conditioned on humane conditions -- there's an expectation that when U.S. officials execute an American, it will be done in a sanitary way that falls short of constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual treatment.
And yet the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma earlier this year continues to stand out for its gut-wrenching details. In April, we learned that the state intended to kill Lockett by using a new, lethal drug combination with contents state officials did not want to disclose, from a drug manufacturer the state did not want to identify. It quickly became apparent that the method was a failure -- Lockett reportedly began to writhe and gasp after he had already been declared unconscious.
A prison official at the execution reportedly stated the obvious at the time: "Something's wrong." Lockett eventually died that night, but of a heart attack.
Over the weekend, however, the Tulsa World reported on the extent to which the execution was even worse than the public previously realized.
When Oklahoma investigators issued a report on what went wrong with the April execution of Clayton Lockett, they downplayed and omitted disturbing details from witnesses and officials, records filed in federal court show.
During interviews with state investigators, the warden at Oklahoma State Penitentiary recalled the scene inside the execution chamber on April 29 as "a bloody mess," according to a motion filed Friday by attorneys for death-row inmates.
Another witness said the scene "was like a horror movie" as Lockett was bucking and attempting to raise himself off the gurney when he was supposed to be unconscious and dying.
The article, to be sure, is not easy reading, but it's an important account of an instance in which a state tried to kill one of its citizens and struggled in ways that are genuinely shocking.
Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia's spirited defense of torture

12/15/14 10:22AM

The Associated Press reported late last week that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia defended torture during a radio interview, but there was a small problem with the report: it included very few actual quotes. Given the subject matter, it seemed important to know exactly what the far-right jurist said on the subject.
Fortunately, RTS - Swiss National Radio was kind enough to provide MaddowBlog with an audio recording of its interview with the Supreme Court justice, and I was able to transcribe the relevant portion.
The interviewer asked, for example, what the U.S. Constitution says about torture. "We have laws against torture," Scalia replied. "The Constitution says nothing whatever about torture. It speaks of punishment; 'cruel and unusual' punishments are forbidden."
"So torture is forbidden, in that case?" the host asked. "If it's imposed as a punishment, yes," Scalia responded. "If you condemn someone who has committed a crime to be tortured, that would be unconstitutional."
When the interview sought clarification, asking about interrogations, Scalia interrupted mid-question. Here's his response in its entirety:
"We have never held that that's contrary to the Constitution. And I don't know what provision of the Constitution that would, that would contravene.
"Listen, I think it is very facile for people to say, 'Oh, torture is terrible.' You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people. You think it's an easy question? You think it's clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person? I don't think that's so clear at all.
"And once again, it's this sort of self-righteousness of European liberals who answer that question so readily and so easily. It's not that easy a question."
When the host noted that American liberals tend to agree with European liberals on the issue, Scalia added, "And American liberals too. Yes. But the Europeans are more self-righteous, I think."
If Scalia's example about a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles seems vaguely familiar, there's a good reason for that.
Snow begins to gather on a statue outside the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, Dec. 10, 2013.

New Budget Committee chief: time for a new debt-ceiling standoff

12/15/14 09:15AM

Almost immediately after the 2014 elections, the conventional wisdom among much of the Beltway media was that power would change Republicans for the better. By taking control of both chambers of Congress, the argument went, GOP lawmakers would have no choice but to become a responsible governing party. They would prove, at long last, that they're capable of acting like grown-ups.
Just one month later, there's already ample evidence that those assumptions about Republican maturity were completely wrong.
Republican Tom Price, the incoming House Budget Committee chairman, said his party could demand steep spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling next year, the most provocative comments by a senior GOP member to date on how negotiations could play out.
The Georgia congressman, during an hour-long briefing with reporters Friday, said the expected mid-2015 debate over whether to raise or suspend the debt ceiling offered Republicans an opportunity to make a sizable imprint on government policy.
The far-right Georgian added that he wants to see Republicans bring back the so-called "Boehner rule" -- an arbitrary policy that demands a dollar in cuts for every dollar increase in the debt limit -- that even Republicans recognized as ridiculous a couple of years ago.
"I prefer to think about it as opportunities and pinch points," Price said, apparently using "pinch points" as a euphemism for "causing deliberate national harm."
It's worth emphasizing that Price isn't some random, fringe figure, shouting from the sidelines -- the Georgia Republican next month will fill Paul Ryan's shoes as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
In other words, it matters that Price envisions a strategy in which Republicans threaten to hurt Americans on purpose unless Democrats meet the GOP's demands.
That said, Price would be wise to start lowering expectations -- his intention to create a deliberate crisis will almost certainly fail.
Dick Cheney attends an event, Nov. 22, 2013, in New York, NY.

Cheney: 'I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective'

12/15/14 08:35AM

When NBC announced late last week that former Vice President Dick Cheney would be the lead guest on yesterday's "Meet the Press," it was easy to start imagining exactly how the interview would go. Cheney would do what he always does: celebrate torture and apologize for nothing.
But it's one thing to expect the worst; it's something else to actually see the worst play out on national television. Irin Carmon noted yesterday:
Former Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday budged not an inch in his defense of the CIA torture program – even when it came to people who were falsely detained. And he reiterated that, given the chance, that he would do it all again. [...]
Each time Cheney was asked to weigh in on the grisly tactics, he pivoted instead to American citizens dying on the September 11 terrorist attacks.
That's not an exaggeration, by the way. Host Chuck Todd didn't ask any questions about 9/11, but looking at the transcript, I count at least 12 direct references to the 2001 attack in response to inquiries about torture.
Indeed, when Todd asked Cheney how he defines the word torture -- an excellent question under the circumstances -- Cheney referred only to the terrorism of 9/11.
At least for me, the most striking exchange came when the former V.P. was asked about a detainee who died after CIA abuse, who was only taken into custody as the result of mistaken identity.
Ted Cruz walks to participate in a cloture vote, Feb. 12, 2014.

Senate Dems find an unwitting ally in Ted Cruz

12/15/14 08:00AM

As the dust settled on Saturday's drama in the U.S. Senate, there was one bottom-line result: Congress approved a $1.1 trillion spending package -- the so-called "CRomnibus" -- that funds most federal operations through the end of the fiscal year. The final vote in the upper chamber was 56 to 40, and President Obama will sign the bill into law.
But it's what happened before the vote that people will be talking about for a while.
As of Friday night, it appeared the Senate leadership in both parties had reached an agreement on the schedule: members would vote on the spending package on Monday, and if Democrats were lucky, they might get a few confirmation votes in before the Senate recessed for the year. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, "See you Monday" on his way out the door late Friday.
As msnbc's Benjy Sarlin reported, however, that was before a couple of far-right senators hatched a plan of their own.
Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are facing a backlash of their own from Republican colleagues after scuttling a deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow lawmakers to leave town over the weekend and vote on the bill Monday.
The agreement between the leaders required the unanimous consent of members, but an unsuccessful attempt by Lee and Cruz on Friday to force a vote on a measure to defund President Obama's recent executive action on immigration upended their plan.
The result was an extraordinary gift to Democrats, handed to them by unwitting allies: two conservative Republicans who plainly didn't know what they were doing.

Hostage situation and other headlines

12/15/14 07:24AM

Gunman holding hostages inside a chocolate shop in Sydney, Australia. (NBC News)

Britain to seek access to CIA torture report. (AP)

NYPD to reevaluate its approach to protests at a meeting today. (NY Times)

After passing the spending bill this weekend, Sen. Harry Reid sets plans in motion to confirm surgeon-general nominee. (Washington Post)

See which Senate committee seats Democrats will lose in January. (Politico)

Botched execution described as 'a bloody mess,' court filing shows. (Tulsa World)

David Koch speaks. (ABC News)

American man illegally in North Korea says he's not detained. (AP)

read more

Week in Geek: Physics by the swimming pool

12/14/14 12:26PM

Next time you're hanging by the pool, start throwing around words like: angular momentum, friction, and vortex lines, because science is everywhere. "Physics Girl" Dianna Cowern shows you how it all works, with a trick involving a simple dinner plate. read more

Some of the biology textbooks, Sept. 10, 2003.

This Week in God, 12.13.14

12/13/14 09:45AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a curious lawsuit out of Kansas, where a conservative group went to federal court with an odd argument about science and religion.
An organization that calls itself Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE) argued that evolutionary biology should be prohibited in public-school science classes because, as the group's members see it, evolution is part of a "non-theistic" religious agenda. As the Associated Press reported this week, the lawsuit didn't fare well: a federal judge threw the case out.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree ruled that a nonprofit group, parents and taxpayers challenging the standards did not claim specific enough injuries from adoption of the guidelines to allow the case to go forward.
The State Board of Education last year adopted standards developed by Kansas, 25 other states and the National Research Council. The guidelines treat both evolution and climate change as key scientific concepts to be taught from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Raw Story's report noted that COPE characterized the science standards as unacceptable because they lead "impressionable" students "into the religious sphere by leading them to ask ultimate questions like what is the cause and nature of life in the universe -- 'where do we come from?'"
I'm not sure why that necessarily has to be a theological question, but COPE didn't ask me.
Crabtree, an Obama-appointed judge, said the conservative plaintiffs asserted only an "abstract stigmatic injury" that isn't enough to sustain a lawsuit.
I suppose Citizens for Objective Public Education deserves some credit for creativity -- it's true that public schools are required to remain neutral in matters of faith -- but going to court to block science lessons in science classes was, to put it charitably, a longshot. The group doesn't have to like modern biology, but trying to label it a religion isn't going to work.
Also from the God Machine this week: