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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder looks on during a rookie minicamp practice session at Redskins Park on May 5 in Ashburn, Va. (Evan Vucci/AP/File)

Redskins name change: Will Congress make team act?

By Staff writer / 05.29.13

Can Capitol Hill get the Washington Redskins to change their name? That’s a live question in D.C. Wednesday since 10 members of Congress have sent a letter asking for such a switch to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, Redskins sponsor FedEx, and all the other NFL franchises.

The word “redskin” is offensive to many native Americans, said the lawmakers in their missive.

“Native Americans throughout the country consider the ‘R-word’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos,” the letter said.

Hmm. Will this be the push that finally gets Mr. Snyder to act? After all, this is a long-running issue. The nickname is already the subject of a legal challenge from a group that wants to strip the team of trademark protection. Native American groups themselves have complained that the team name is a slur that should not be allowed.

Furthermore, the politics of the group that sent the letter is pretty interesting. For the most part, it reflects the membership of the Congressional Native American Caucus. While most of the signers are Democrats, at least one – Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw nation – is Republican, giving the effort a bipartisan tinge.

Plus, there’s a precedent. A Washington sports team changed its name in the mid-1990s in part due to worries that it had become offensive. That was the former Washington Bullets, whose owner, Abe Pollin, decided that the name spoke too much of violence, and changed it to Wizards in 1995.

But to be honest, we don’t think the Redskins are going to follow suit, at least not yet. Ten members of Congress do not really constitute a very big pressure group. There are 435 lawmakers in the House chamber, after all. That means 425 did not sign the letter.

And Daniel Synder is not Abe Pollin. He’s stubborn, and he grew up in the Washington area as a rabid fan, watching the Redskins in their Joe Gibbs glory days while eating off a TV tray in front of the set. He’s become a wealthy communications businessman, but the team is his toy. “Redskin” may be his “Rosebud," a word that evokes his past.

“We will never change the name of the team,” he told USA Today earlier this month.

That’s a vow he’s unlikely to break. This is a man who sued for libel after the Washington City Paper ran an article titled, “The Cranky Redskins Fan Guide to Dan Snyder” (he later dropped the suit). This is a man who has banned fan signs from FedEx field. This is a man who lured Mr. Gibbs out of retirement for a second coaching stint, after Gibbs had been off the field for 11 years.

“I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season,” Snyder told USA Today.

President Obama points to lipstick marks on his collar in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday night. 'A sign of the warmth is the lipstick on my collar,' he said. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Obama lipstick on collar: Who put it there? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 05.29.13

Why did President Obama have lipstick on his collar when he rose to make remarks at a White House reception Tuesday night?

Because an enthusiastic supporter had put it there accidentally, that’s why. He referred to that right up top as his way of softening up the crowd. Truth be told, he was already pretty happy to be there, as it was a celebration for Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Having been raised in Hawaii, Mr. Obama is something of a Pacific Islander himself.

Anyway, the president began by thanking everybody for the warmth of his reception.

“A sign of the warmth is the lipstick on my collar,” he said.

Then he said he knew the culprit, and he asked to see a woman named Jessica Sanchez.

“It wasn’t Jessica. It was her aunt. Where is she?” he said as the room dissolved in laughter.

Obama then made the obvious point that he did not want to get in trouble with the first lady on this.

“That’s why I’m calling you out right in front of everybody,” he said to the aunt in question.

The president had to say something about the smear, right? It was a pretty obvious lip imprint, right up there near his necktie. It was going to show up in pictures and become the subject of a thousand gossip blogs.

If Obama’s reelection campaign showed anything, it is that he and his advisers understand the power of nontraditional media and their ability to shape the president’s image. All those appearances by him and Michelle on everything from “The View” to “Dr. Oz” were a big part of his campaign strategy. A lipstick smear? That’s good for a week of special reports on “Ellen.” Reddit would probably have done another of its crowd-source analysis things, measuring the parameters of the smear and then comparing them to pictures of lips in the crowd, eventually proving beyond a doubt that it could only have come from Joe Biden, or something like that.

Of course we’ve got our own conspiracy theory: Political guru David Axelrod had somebody put it there on purpose. A speechwriter then scripted impromptu remarks on the stain for Obama, loosening up the crowd and distracting the news media from the IRS scandal, Justice-ordered seizure of reporters' phone records, and so forth.

If so, this post is proof: mission accomplished.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (r.), seen here at the University of Kentucky in Lexington in March, is tied with Sen. Mitch McConnell in the 2014 Senate race, according to Public Policy Polling. Ms. Grimes has not yet announced that she is running for the seat. (Roger Alford/AP/File)

Mitch McConnell tied in new poll. Does he miss Ashley Judd yet?

By Staff Writer / 05.28.13

Does Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell miss Ashley Judd yet?

We ask this because there’s a new poll out showing the GOP Kentucky lawmaker, who is up for reelection in 2014, tied with a potential Democratic opponent who is not a movie star: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The survey from generally Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling shows Senator McConnell and Ms. Grimes both draw 45 percent of voters in a hypothetical matchup. That represents a slide on McConnell’s part, according to the PPP data. The firm had him leading Grimes by 4 points in April and 7 points last December.

“McConnell’s early positive advertising has done nothing to improve his prospects for reelection and in fact this is actually the weakest position PPP has found him in yet,” writes Tom Jensen, PPP polling director.

If you remember, actress/activist Ms. Judd was considering running against McConnell herself. Some Bluegrass State Dems were eager for her to make the race, given that she could raise lots of money and generate news coverage with minimal effort.

But in late March she announced she wouldn’t do it.

“After serious and thorough contemplation, I realize that my responsibilities & energy at this time need to be focused on my family,” Judd tweeted at the time.

Why would McConnell wish for the co-star of “Tooth Fairy” as his opponent? Because she would have been easy to run against, that’s why.

Karl Rove’s American Crossroads "super political-action committee" put up an ad in February that previewed some of the themes McConnell likely would have used against her in a Republican-leaning state. It portrayed Judd as a tool of President Obama, a Hollywood liberal, and a resident of Tennessee to boot.

That last bit could have been a killer. Judd has made her principal residence in Tennessee for some time, and she was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention last year from Tennessee, not her home state.

You can be sure that before Election Day 2014 rolled around the McConnell team would have made sure every person in Kentucky had seen the clip of Judd saying, “and it just clicked – Tennessee is home,” until they were hearing those words in their sleep.

Now that won’t happen. And the Senate minority leader is tied (maybe – it’s just one poll) with an opponent who has much less baggage.

Of course, Grimes has not yet decided whether she’ll challenge McConnell, either. The daughter of a former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman, she’s in her first term and is not that well known in her own right around the state.

That last fact is why the PPP poll may overstate McConnell’s electoral weakness, points out Philip Bump at The Atlantic Wire.

It’s true that McConnell isn’t wildly popular in Kentucky. He’s spent lots of time on national issues at the expense of cultivating his base. But Grimes is a relative blank slate. The PPP poll showed a plurality of 42 percent of respondents had no favorable or unfavorable opinion of Grimes.

“How she is perceived by the public is largely an open question, in other words – and it’s one that could be defined by McConnell (with his deep pockets and his opposition research-performing staffers, not to mention the national party machine) as easily as by Grimes’ campaign."

In others words, she’d get hammered, too. Or will get hammered, if she decides to run. The McConnell team is probably cutting ads right now.

President Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon arrival at Atlantic City International Airport in Atlantic City, N.J., to visit areas damaged by superstorm Sandy, Oct. 2012. Obama with Christie at his side, will visit the recovering coast on Tuesday, in an effort to reinforce a message of effective government, bipartisanship, and economic opportunity. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File)

Obama visits Jersey shore today. Will he play skee ball? (+video)

By Staff writer / 05.28.13

President Obama is visiting the Jersey shore Tuesday. No, he and Michelle and the girls aren’t on vacation – for that they’re going to Martha’s Vineyard later in the summer. Mr. Obama is touring New Jersey beach communities ravaged by superstorm Sandy to see how rebuilding efforts are progressing.

He and Gov. Chris Christie (R) probably will stroll a bit of boardwalk somewhere to help promote the fact that the shore has reopened for business. There’s no word yet on whether cotton candy or skee ball will be involved.

Governor Christie’s taken a lot of criticism from fellow Republicans for hosting Obama, if you remember. Some in the party even blame Christie’s praise of Obama, along with the federal disaster response, for Mitt Romney’s loss last November.

But fewer pixels have been spent on Obama’s role in this bromance. What’s in it for him?

After all, in a political sense the president is building up a possible successor from the other party. If the moderate Christie can win the Republican nomination, he’d probably be a formidable foe for Obama’s side in 2016.

Well, for one thing the Jersey shore stroll shows Obama as bipartisan. It’s a rare moment nowadays when the president gets to engage with Republicans of any sort in a common response to a problem. That’s partly why he traveled to Moore, Okla., on Sunday to meet with officials there and console victims of last week’s tornadoes.

New Jersey is also the heart of a densely populated region. If Christie runs on a national ticket, he’d probably take his home state, but Obama wants his party to remain as popular there as possible – for upcoming midterm elections and state races, if nothing else.

But the big reason Obama wants to appear heavily engaged in Jersey reconstruction is the fairly obvious one: Disaster response is a basic function of government on all levels, from municipalities to the Oval Office. It is something that voters all across the country pay close attention to and judge in a fairly nonpartisan manner. If Obama looks like he’s shortchanging New Jersey (and Oklahoma) to a certain extent, they’ll notice that in Ohio.

Remember hurricane Katrina, and the perceived slow federal response, and “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”? Of course you do. George W. Bush was widely criticized for his actions in the wake of Katrina, including patting his embattled FEMA director, Michael Brown, on the back, rhetorically speaking. Obama does not want that to happen to him.

Georgetown University political scientist Daniel Hopkins wrote an interesting piece on the political fallout of natural disasters for Washington Post’s Wonkblog. In summarizing various studies on the subject, Mr. Hopkins found that voters don’t blame politicians for events beyond their control, such as the disasters themselves. But they do pay close attention to how politicians act in the aftermath.

“Multiple studies indicate that when incumbents act in voters’ interests in the wake of a disaster, they are rewarded with increased support. After disasters, people rise to the occasion, and so do voters,” Hopkins concluded.

President Obama makes a point about his administration's counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, Thursday. Obama reiterated his commitment in a counterterrorism speech Thursday and outlined steps he would take to close the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Obama vows again to close Guantánamo: What are the sticking points? (+video)

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 05.24.13

Six years after he first vowed to close the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, President Obama reiterated his commitment in a counterterrorism speech Thursday and outlined steps he would take to close the camp.

Mr. Obama indicated plans to slow down the war on terror, as he pledged to curb controversial practices like drone strikes as well as renew the efforts to close Guantánamo. But questions remain about how the president will handle a controversial and complex closure.

“History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama said. “Imagine a future – 10 years from now or 20 years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?”

Since February, 103 of the camp’s 166 detainees have been engaged in a hunger strike to protest years of indefinite detention without formal charges. Some 32 strikers are being force-fed.

The hunger strike, which entered its 100th day last week, “affected the president’s thinking and played into the impetus for the speech,” according to a report in Politico.

Eighty-six detainees were cleared for release at least three years ago but are still being held because of a 2010 executive order barring detainee transfers to Yemen, where Al Qaeda is still active. This situation at Guantánamo has been an oft-cited grievance among opponents of the military prison.

Playing a lesser role in the decision to shutter Gitmo, and one that is less publicized, is the cost associated with housing detainees at the 11-year-old facility: $900,000 per detainee per year, costing taxpayers more than $150 million every year, according to a CNN report. By comparison, a typical federal prison inmate costs taxpayers about $25,000 per year.

“There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” Obama said in his remarks Thursday. “To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system, and we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”

The president’s specific pledges included:

• Rescinding the executive order banning detainee transfers to Yemen, where a majority of the Guantánamo detainees are from.

• Asking Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers.

• Appointing an envoy at the State and Defense Departments to move detainee transfers forward.

• Calling on the Defense Department to identify a location where military commissions could be held on mainland US soil, instead of at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

 Nonetheless, many questions remain on how the president would execute a closure. Among them:

• How will the administration handle detainees who are too dangerous to release but who cannot be prosecuted because of scant or inadmissible evidence?

• How will it ensure detainees transferred overseas do not return to the US to engage in terrorist activities?

• How will the US handle terror suspects captured in the future?

This much is clear: As the president renews efforts to close Guantánamo, he will be navigating new legal and logistical issues in the war on terror.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Technology Enhanced Accelerated Learning Center news conference in Newark, New Jersey, earlier this month. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Files)

Chris Christie to stroll Jersey Shore with Obama (again!): What's he thinking?

By Staff writer / 05.24.13

Chris Christie is welcoming a VIP to the Jersey Shore on Tuesday to see the area’s recovery efforts – President Obama.

Yes, it’s true. The GOP New Jersey governor is once again set to stroll along the boardwalk with the Democratic US chief executive, delighting many of his constituents but rankling conservatives across America.

You’ll remember that in the wake of superstorm Sandy, prior to last November’s election, Governor Christie welcomed Mr. Obama to the Garden State and praised him for helping to speed the federal response to devastated coastal areas. This infuriated supporters of the Republican White House hopeful, Mitt Romney. Some in the Romney campaign blamed Christie for contributing to Romney’s subsequent defeat.

Now Obama’s on the defensive in Washington, due to the IRS scandal, Benghazi hearings, revelations about federal seizure of journalists' phone records, and so forth. So what’s an embattled president to do? Road trip! Back to the Jersey Shore for a little skee ball and some fries in a paper cup, and suddenly that 48 percent approval rating doesn’t look so bad. Maybe the voters will forget some of the bad stuff as summer starts, amirite?

“The fact of the matter is, he’s the president of the United States and he wants to come here and see the people of New Jersey. I’m the governor and I’ll be here to welcome him,” said Christie Friday morning during an appearance on NBC’s “Today.”

What’s Christie thinking? If he’s ever going to run for president, he’ll need to win Republican primaries, and that’s going to be hard to do if the voters in, say, South Carolina think you’re a turncoat and Republican In Name Only (RINO).

Yes, but he’s also up for reelection to his current office this year, and last time we looked, New Jersey was a blue-leaning state. In that context, the joint appearance with Obama can only help.

And reaching out to the other party is working pretty well for Christie so far, electorally speaking. Paterson City Council president Anthony Davis endorsed Christie earlier this week, becoming the 14th prominent state Democrat to back the incumbent governor.

The official Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Barbara Buono, is now so far behind that some party veterans are urging her to drop out in favor of some (probably imaginary) better-positioned candidate. Polls show Senator Buono trails Christie by some 30 points.

Plus, as Christie himself argues, his responsibilities to economic redevelopment of the devastated shore are his first priority at the moment. He’s been rolling up and down the shore this week to help publicize the area’s recovery. On Friday he cut a five-mile-long ribbon that symbolically linked some of the shore’s hardest-hit towns, in an attempt to show they are open for business.

“Anybody who lives in New Jersey, the Jersey Shore is in your heart,” Christie said. “This means everything to our state.”

If Christie does decide to run for president, he’s still got plenty of time to veer back to the right. Democrats may help him do that: The liberal Nation this week ran a piece titled “Chris Christie, a GOP Moderate? Fuhgeddaboudit!” It detailed some of his more conservative positions, such as his past opposition to abortion and his battles with public-sector unions.

Finally, there’s a chance the much-vaunted reluctance of the GOP primary electorate to embrace perceived moderates is overblown. After all, the past two Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain, were far from the most conservative folks in the race. Mr. Romney’s primary victory may have showed that the electability argument still carries some weight in the party.

Thus it’s possible that Christie’s popularity with Democrats may not count against him in 2015 and 2016 as much as many pundits now think.

This photo released by the Punahou School in Honolulu shows Barack Obama on a page from his 1978 senior yearbook. At left Obama plays basketball with an unidentified classmate. In Obama's senior class photo (r.) he goes by the nickname Barry. (Punahou School/AP/File)

Obama prom photos, big hair and all: Were those the good old days?

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 05.23.13

It’s like finding out that your parents had a life before you came into the picture, or that your first-grade teacher doesn’t always wear sensible shoes and go by Mrs. Cooper.

Yes, even the leader of the free world had a life before handling economic crises and juggling overseas conflicts.

In President Obama’s case, that means embarrassing prom pictures, big hair, and a garish fashion sense (see, he’s just like us!). It’s available for our viewing pleasure thanks to some 1979 photos of Mr. Obama in Time magazine that show the president, then a student at Punahou School in Honolulu, with his date before the prom. The pictures show a beaming 17-year-old Barack clad in a white suit jacket, blue tie, and lei, arms around the shoulders of his date, Megan Hughes. Also in the pictures are Greg Orme and his date, Kelli Allman, who offered the photos to Time (for which, we think she should be retroactively crowned prom queen).

Also published by Time was a note Obama left in Ms. Allman’s yearbook, calling her “sweet and foxy” and declaring, “You really deserve better than clowns like us; you even laugh at my jokes!”

He might be right. After all, this was before Obama had a speechwriter, media training, and a staff at the ready to write perfectly scripted jokes for events just like this (ahem, White House Correspondents' Dinner, aka nerd prom.

“It was a really fun, happy time. We were all cracking up, and everyone was smiling,” Allman told the magazine.

Sure, Obama’s come a long way since his awkward high school years (and we’re primarily talking about his fashion sense), but we bet he’s pining for them right about now.

After enduring a modern-day version of the seven plagues, political edition – a grueling reelection campaign, an 11th-hour budget battle that pushed the nation off a cliff, a crushing defeat in the gun debate, excruciating attempts at bipartisanship, and most recently, a trio of scandals that’s prompted references to Watergate and “the second-term curse” – the prom photos probably come as a breath of fresh, Hawaiian air to the president, big hair, funny clothes and all.

Oh, to be 17, in Hawaii, and with nary a care in the world.

First lady Michelle Obama walks on the streets during her vacation with her daughter Sasha to the historical center of the southern Spanish town of Marbella in 2010. (Jon Nazca/REUTERS)

Michelle Obama vacation: Will critics slam this trip too? (+video)

By Staff writer / 05.23.13

Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia are looking at an extended vacation on Martha’s Vineyard this summer, according to a report in The Boston Globe. The Globe might have something here – it’s almost a local Vineyard paper, after all.

According to The Globe the first couple is looking at a house near Farm Neck, in Oak Bluffs, which they’ve visited in the past.  The particular house they’ve stayed in previously, Blue Heron Farm, “Up Island” in Chilmark, has since been sold. So that piece of real estate is probably out.

President Obama has a lot going on, what with defending against Benghazi inquisitions and the IRS's targeting of conservative groups and other flaps, so it’s not as if he’s going to be biking the Vineyard’s idyllic paths all summer. He may come up for weekends and an extended period of time in August.

If Michelle and the kids do opt for a lengthy Vineyard stay it could become fodder for critics. First family vacations are a fraught issue, as it’s easy to portray them as insensitive in some manner. The Vineyard is an expensive and exclusive area (as well as kind of Democratic – didn’t the Clintons go there?) so it’s likely that at some point some talk radio host will go after this plan as demeaning to US workers still suffering in a slowly recovering economy.

The right-leaning Weekly Standard, for instance, has already complained that the Obamas are on a vacation-a-month schedule so far for 2013.

Plus, the first lady and daughters have at least one family foreign trip on the agenda. They’re scheduled to accompany Dad on his trip to Ireland for a Group of Eight summit in June.

And Michelle will go along with Barack when the president makes a swing through Africa later in the summer. There’s no word yet on whether Sasha and Malia will go there, too.

In the past conservative groups have cried “foul” over Mrs. Obama’s presence on such trips, saying that while the first couple may pay for some of the expenses, it still costs the taxpayers money for her security detail and associated stuff. The group Judicial Watch even filed a suit with the US Air Force last year, seeking records from Mrs. Obama’s trip to Spain in 2010.

For the Obamas the reality is that the White House is a gilded cage. Like virtually all residents of the US executive mansion before them they long to escape it for a semblance of normality, preferably somewhere with a climate superior to that of steamy Washington, D.C.

As a wealthy couple they can afford a Vineyard rental. Having been there before, they’ve perhaps decided it both meets their recreating needs and can be played down as a place where they’ve been before.

A protester against US drone strikes in Yemen, who holds a banner with photos of people killed in drone attacks, stands outside the US Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, in April. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File)

Obama dials back drone strikes: 3 reasons why

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 05.22.13

How's this for a paradox: US drone strikes are now declining under President Obama – the man who made drone strikes a primary element of his counterterrorism strategy.

President Obama has, in some ways, become known as the "drone president." His drone campaign started three days into the first term of his presidency. His national security policy has been defined, at least in part, by a penchant for targeted killings. And he has already authorized more than six times the number of strikes in Pakistan that President George W. Bush did in his entire presidency.

And yet, as the president prepares to make his case for drones in a Thursday address at the National Defense University in Washington, it turns out drone strikes are actually down considerably, according to an analysis in The New York Times.

In Pakistan, drone strikes plummeted nearly 61 percent from 2010 (117 strikes) to 2012 (46 strikes), and they’re still dropping, with a relatively scant 13 strikes so far this year, according to data from Long War Journal, a website that tracks American drone strikes. In Yemen, strikes are down from 42 in 2012 to 10 in 2013. And in Somalia, no strikes have been reported in more than a year. 

Why the quiet drop-off in drone strikes? Here’s three reasons:

Fewer targets remain

That’s right, the program’s very success in efficiently eliminating scores of Al Qaeda operatives means there are, quite simply, fewer Al Qaeda targets left to kill.

“The [Obama] administration used the drone strikes aggressively and killed the top al Qaeda leaders,” an unnamed intelligence official told Pakistani news site The News International in December 2012. “Now that we have taken out most of these guys, the usage of the drone strikes seems decreasing.”

In Pakistan, it appears so many Al Qaeda targets have been killed, the focus has quietly shifted to Taliban fighters. Taliban targets account for more than 50 percent of targeted killings, compared with just 8 percent for Al Qaeda figures, according to national security analyst Peter Bergen.

Diplomatic strains

No surprise, Mr. Obama’s drone program has alienated allies abroad, largely because of the number of civilian casualties incurred as a result of the strikes. Nowhere is that more true than in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiments are already high due to US actions such as the SEAL team operation to kill Osama bin Laden.  

For a president who, upon taking office, vowed to improve relations with the Muslim world, the drone program is counterproductive. A Pew Research Center survey reveals that under George W. Bush, a relatively unpopular president in the Muslim world, the United States generated higher approval ratings (19 percent) than it does now (12 percent), under Obama.

“Globally these operations are hated,” Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times. “It’s the face of American foreign policy, and it’s an ugly face.”


Al Qaeda has used the Obama administration’s drone program, and particularly its sad side effect of civilian casualties, as a central part of its recruitment propaganda. Wildly unpopular in the Muslim world, the strikes are leveraged by Al Qaeda to make a case that the US is at war with Islam and to drum up sympathy for its cause.

The drone program has also been mentioned by convicted terrorists as motivation for their crimes, as the Times points out, including “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who tried to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009, as well as Faisal Shahzad, whose attempted Times Square car bombing was foiled in 2010.

In other words, drone strikes may be creating as many would-be terrorists as it seeks to eliminate. 

IRS official Lois Lerner pauses during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, to investigate the extra scrutiny IRS gave to Tea Party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Lerner told the committee she did nothing wrong and then invoked her Fifth Amendment rights. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

IRS official Lois Lerner invokes Fifth Amendment. Why won't she talk? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 05.22.13

Lois Lerner, the Internal Revenue Service official at the center of the storm over the agency’s targeting of conservative political groups, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination Wednesday and declined to testify at a House hearing on the matter.

Why did she do that?

Many on the right assume she did so because she is covering up criminal activity. Twitter was aflame with comments noting that she is a registered Democrat and should be fired.

“So, Lois Lerner is either a coward or a criminal, right? Tell me where I’m wrong,” tweeted conservative commentator S.E. Cupp shortly after Ms. Lerner declined to answer lawmakers’ questions.

Lerner, however, denies she did anything wrong. In brief comments before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee prior to her invocation of the Fifth, she said, “I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee,” said Lerner.

The committee chairman, Rep. Darryl Issa (R) of California, said she was entitled to exercise her right to refuse to speak.

“There can be no question that we have to respect it. Additionally, her assertion is not to be viewed or used during this hearing to make any determination plus or minus as to actions that were taken,” Representative Issa said.

Lerner’s particular problem is that committee members and others have questions about her past statements as to when she found out about the IRS targeting of key words such as “tea party” when investigating the tax exempt status of 501(c)(4) organizations.

Earlier this month she told journalists she had learned of the practice from news reports in early 2012. But according to the just-released Inspector General report on the issue, Lerner, head of the IRS division on tax-exempt organizations, found out her employees were targeting conservative groups in June, 2011.

She ordered the targeting to stop, but it gradually returned with slightly broader key word searches. Members want to know why it wasn’t killed immediately.

Oversight panel members also want to know whether she misled congressional investigators about her knowledge of the targeting.

Staff members of the Issa-led panel talked with Lerner and other IRS officials in 2012 following complaints from some conservative organizations that they were having trouble with the IRS. At the time Lerner did not mention the targeting. Nor did she talk about it with staff members of a House Ways and Means subcommittee who were looking at the same issue and who questioned her early last year.

Earlier this week Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gave Lerner’s public comments on IRS targeting four Pinocchios, saying they were full of “misstatements” and “weasely wording.”

Given the contradictions between her words and the public record, it’s perhaps not surprising that Lerner declined to discuss the issue in the televised glare of a politically-charged hearing.

So why does she still have an IRS job? It might be because it’s not easy to fire her, or most other government workers that don’t fill a politically-appointed job.

As David Nather and Rachel Bade note at Politico, “Most employees involved in the targeting program are covered by protections for federal workers that could drag out the termination process.”

If the Obama administration decides it needs to ditch Lerner, its best chance might be to just ask her to resign and see if she goes along. The outgoing acting director of the agency, Steven Miller, was a career official who could have dug in if he’d wanted to. But when Treasury Secretary Jack Lew asked him to quit, he did.

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