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Thursday, March 26, 2015

White House Gives Iran More Benefit of the Doubt Than Israel

    A pair of statements about an hour apart on Monday by two top Obama administration officials give a clear if jarring look into the funhouse mirror that is current US policy towards Iran and Israel. The two comments are recorded by CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta on his Twitter account:


Here are White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough's comments, made at the J Street Annual Conference, in fuller context:
After the election, the Prime Minister said that he had not changed his position, but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution, as did his suggestion that the construction of settlements has a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian communities and his claim that conditions in the larger Middle East must be more stable before a Palestinian state can be established. We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the Prime Minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations.
    Over at the State Department, spokesperson Marie Harf piled on, despite clarification and even apologies from Netanyahu for some of his pre-election remarks:
MS. HARF: Well, the President, I think, addressed this in his interview that ran this weekend – that given [Netanyahu's] statements prior to the election, it’s going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing, when it comes to negotiations, that those are possible. So we are evaluating what’s taking place. And I think what we’re looking for now are actions and policies that demonstrate genuine commitment to a two-state solution, not more words. So that’s what we’ll be looking for. 
... I think it’s just understandably confusing for people about which of his comments to believe. And so that’s why -- 
...I think we just don’t know what to believe at this point.
    On the other hand, Ayatollah Khamenei's Nowruz (Iranian New Year) message called for "Death to America" even as he voiced support for the ongoing nuclear negotiations, blaming the US in advance if the talks fail. Rather than read this dichotomy as a reason to doubt Iran's sincerity (John Kerry, after all, said that we have "great respect" for the religious importance of the Ayatollah's elusive anti-nuke fatwa), White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest simply sees this as all the more reason to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran. And as CNN reported (via Josh Kraushaar), the White House just sees the "Death to America" talk as "intended for a domestic political audience," not the first time the Obama administration has used that excuse for Iran.
    Even for veterans observers of middle eastern politics it must be disorienting to witness the benefit of the doubt extended to the worst state sponsor of terrorism whose "Supreme Leader" wishes "Death to America", while this nation's closest ally in the Middle East (and also a target of death wishes by Iran's Supreme Leader) is met with the wounded lament, "I think we just don’t know what to believe at this point." Given these responses, the Unites States may not be the only country to "re-evaluate our approach to the peace process."


Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Feds Paid Politico $432K in 2014 [Updated]

Since Politico, a politics-focused website and newspaper, launched its subscription-based news service Politico Pro in 2011, government agencies have increasingly turned to the service to keep abreast of the latest developments in their spheres of policy. Government records show fiscal year 2011 contracts with the owner of Politico, Capitol News Company, totaling $41,900. By fiscal year 2014, there were no fewer than twenty-eight contracts with sixteen different departments and agencies, including the Executive Office of the President, totaling $431,800.
A chart from the USASpending.gov website illustrates the trend (including the first five and a half months of fiscal year 2015):

The first five and a half months of fiscal 2015 have seen fifteen contracts for $198,188, although at least one agency, the FCC, appears not to have renewed a $50,000 fiscal 2014 contract in 2015.
Although not all of the records found under Capitol News Service explicitly name "Politico Pro" in their descriptions, the primary categories used for the contracts strongly suggest the premium Pro service is the subject of most, if not all of them. Most contracts are categorized as Web-Based Subscription, Newspapers and Periodicals, and Support- Administrative: Library. (Two additional contracts are clearly mis-classified as ADP Software; the descriptions of both include "Politico Pro.")
In addition to the $49,862 contract with the FCC, the other two top dollar 2014 contracts were with the Department of Energy ($61,496) and the Treasury Department ($60,000). Although the larger contracts do not include a breakdown on the number of users permitted under the subscriptions, some of the smaller ones give some details. A $4,995 contract for 2015 with the Executive Office of the President, for example, is for five users for 12 months, while a $2,495 contract for 2015 with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is for "five additional licenses required for incoming commissioner." 
Before Politico Pro's launch, the New York Times reported that Politico does not have a set rate for the Politico Pro service, but rather tailors subscriptions for an organization's number and areas of policy interests. At least one government department determined at one time that the price was too steep: The Washington Post reported in January 2014 that the Education Department declined the service due to the cost. The Education Department had a change of heart in 2015, however, signing a $14,985 contract this year.
In most cases, not only is Politico Pro the preferred policy news service for government agencies, it's the only service some will consider. Most of the contracts for Politico Pro that can be found on the FBO.gov contracting website were awarded on a "sole-source" basis. Other vendors who believe they are able to offer a comparable service were permitted to submit proposals, but in the absence of compelling evidence, the agencies are often effusive in their praise of what they see as Politico Pro's unique product.
For instance, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says, "it was found that the content contained in Politico Pro's product is crucial to the successful completion of the CFPB mission." The Treasury Department's Bureau of the Public Debt has this to say: "Politico Pro is the only source with the early and valuable behind the scenes information that is essential for OFR to respond quickly and plan strategy to newly introduced legislation. This coverage cannot be provided by comparable news outlets or vendors." The Environmental Protection Agency cites the "unbiased" presentation of information as a major benefit: "Politico Pro is unique in that it also does not provide too much content and analysis, which many other services provide. It is first and foremost a news agency, not an analytical organization, and as such it provides information in an unbiased and accessible way."
Since 2011, the federal government has contracted with Capitol News Company for a grand total of $917,193. Capitol News Company's annual revenue is listed as $30,000,000 under "Contractor Characteristics" at the USASpending website. This means that the total government contracts of $431,800 for 2014 represented about 1.4% of the company's total revenue for the year.
Politico did not respond to an email requesting comment for this article. 


UPDATE: After this post ran at The Weekly Standard, Politico's Mike Allen noted it in his Politico Playbook feature, headlined "WHY ELITE OFFICIALS read Politico Pro." Allen  framed the story as more of a commercial for Politico Pro, however, ignoring the taxpayer dollars involved. He begins:
THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s Jeryl Bier reports why POLITICO Pro – our premium subscription service, covering 14 policy areas, from Agriculture to Transportation – is a favorite for elite administration officials...
The whole thing is here, the twelfth item.


Note: A version of this post (before the update) appeared first at The Weekly Standard.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sports Versus Science, White House Style

    At Monday's White House Science Fair, President Obama made it clear he wanted to make sure that science and scientists are given an appropriate level of attention and respect in American society, at least on par with our sports heroes:
    A little later in the day, however, that message became a little less clear as the White House released the 2015 Easter Egg Roll Talent Line-up and Program. Among the invited guests are no fewer than forty-three individual athletes or sports teams:

This year’s participating athletes include:
Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir (NCAA Women’s Basketball)
Katrina Adams (US Tennis, Retired and US Tennis Association, president)
Davy Arnaud (D.C. United, MLS)
Chris Baker (Washington Redskins, NFL)
Tornado Alicia Black (Women’s Tennis)
Bobby Boswell (D.C. United, MLS)
Calais Campbell (Arizona Cardinals, NFL)
Chris Canty (Baltimore Ravens, NFL)
Victoria Duval (Women’s Tennis)
Sean Franklin (D.C. United, MLS)
Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins, NFL)
Markus Halsti (D.C. United, MLS)
Roman Harper (Carolina Panthers, NFL)
Angela Hucles (US Soccer, Retired and president of Women’s Sports Foundation)
Ryan Kerrigan (Washington Redskins, NFL)
Stefan Kozlov (Tennis)
Matt Lawrence (NFL, Retired)
Esther Lofgren (US Olympic Rowing)
LaShawn Merritt (US Olympic Track and Field)
Ben Olsen (D.C. United head coach, MLS)
Niles Paul (Washington Redskins, NFL)
Chris Pontius (D.C. United, MLS)
Kelly Berger Rabil (US Lacrosse)
Paul Rabil (US Lacrosse)
Rajeev Ram (Tennis)
Noah Rubin (Tennis)
Briana Scurry (US Soccer, Retired)
Torrey Smith (San Francisco 49ers, NFL)
Steve Smith, Sr. (Baltimore Ravens, NFL)
Frances Tiafoe (Tennis)
Coco Vandeweghe (Women’s Tennis)
David Wagner (American Wheelchair Tennis)
DeMarcus Ware (Denver Broncos, NFL)
Dominique Wilkins (NBA, Retired and Basketball Hall of Famer)
Brandon Williams (Baltimore Ravens, NFL)
Doug Williams (NFL, Retired and Super Bowl XXII MVP)
Caroline Wozniacki (Women’s Tennis)
Boston Renegades (Women’s Football Alliance)
D.C. Divas (Women’s Football Alliance)
US Olympic Fencing Team
Washington Capitals (NHL)
Washington Mystics (WNBA)
Washington Wizards (NBA)
And representing science? This guy:



    Forty-three to one is probably not a ratio that is going to elevate scientists to sports-star status, but I guess you have to start somewhere. You go, Sid!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Did First Lady Use 'Divisive Rhetoric' in 2014 Campaign?

    Since Benjamin Netanyahu's victory in Israel's recent elections, the Obama administration has made its displeasure with the results abundantly clear. To help justify changes in its posture towards Israel, the White House appears anxious to point out what it sees as "divisive" rhetoric and attitudes by Netanyahu and his party aimed at the Arab population of Israel. To that end, Press Secretary Josh Earnest came to the press gaggle on Air Force One on Wednesday with a prepared response on the topic. When none of the reporters broached the subject, Earnest unloaded anyway:
There’s one other thing that I anticipated might come up that I just did want to mention as it relates to the Israeli elections.  Specifically, there has been a lot of coverage in the media about some of the rhetoric that emerged yesterday that was propagated by the Likud Party to encourage turnout of their supporters that sought to, frankly, marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens.  The United States and this administration is deeply concerned by divisive rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens. 
It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.  We’ve talked a lot about how our shared values are an important part of what binds our two countries together, and rhetoric that seeks to marginalize one segment of their population is deeply concerning and it is divisive.  And I can tell you that these are views that the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis.
    However, when it comes to condemning divisive campaign rhetoric, the White House could begin closer to home. Although President Obama takes exception to what he perceives as Likud's attempt to "marginalize one segment of [Israel's] population," First Lady Michelle Obama routinely invoked race and gender in her campaign stump speech in the run-up to the 2014 mid-terms. Remarks she made at a rally in Milwaukee in September 2014 are typical of how she clearly labels the Democrats ("our people") as female, minorities and the young, while Republicans are simply "the other side":
And I don’t know if you remember, but a lot of people were shocked when Barack won because they were counting on folks like us to stay home.  But we proved them wrong.  (Applause.)  Barack won because record numbers of women and minorities and young people showed up to vote.  That’s why we won.  (Applause.) 
But here’s what happens -- but then when the midterms come along, too many of our people just tuned out.  And that’s what folks on the other side are counting on this year, because when we stay home, they win.  So they’re assuming that we won’t care.  They’re assuming that we won’t be organized and energized.  And only we can prove them wrong. [emphasis added]
    While the first lady invoked race and gender repeatedly in her speeches, President Obama himself raised the same issue at a dinner for Democrats in April 2014. He even accused the "other side" of trying to discourage "our voters" from voting, a technique he called (with some help from the audience) "Un-American" [emphasis added]:
THE PRESIDENT: ...On every issue of importance, Democrats actually have the better argument, and we have majority opinion behind us.  But we have this congenital disease, which is in midterm elections we don't vote at the same rates.  Our voters are younger, more unmarried women, more African American and Latino voters.  They get excited about general elections; they don't get as excited about midterm elections. 
And what’s compounding the problem is obviously the massive amounts of money that are coming from super PACs on the other side and active efforts to discourage people from voting -- which is another thing I don't understand but apparently is fairly active here in Texas.  The idea that you’d purposely try to prevent people from voting --
AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Un-American.

THE PRESIDENT:  Un-American.
     Not only did the president and his wife engage in the kind of divisive rhetoric of which they accuse "the other side", President Obama has, ironically enough, reportedly taken offense at the suggestion that the strategy was successful. David Axelrod wrote in his recently released book Believer that the president was "irritated" by Governor Romney's concession phone call. The Hill reports:
Axelrod writes that Obama was annoyed Romney seemed to be blaming the loss on the black vote.  
"'You really did a great job of getting the vote out in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee,' in other words, black people," Obama said, summarizing Romney's message. "That's what he thinks this was all about."
     But while Mitt Romney vehemently denies making the remarks about "getting the vote out in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee," the president's wife in her speech in Milwaukee flatly declared, "Barack won because record numbers of women and minorities and young people showed up to vote."
     Given the Obamas blatant use of demographics to spur their voters to the polls, the White House's indignant reaction to Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign may be less about "deep concern" over "marginalization" and more about projection.



Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Kerry Claims 'Great Respect' for 'Religious Importance' of Khamenei's Fatwa

    While addressing the press on Saturday during a visit to Egypt, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the ongoing negotiations with Iran over that country's nuclear programs. As he and President Obama have several times in the past, Kerry cited a report that Iran's "Supreme Leader" has issued a "fatwa" against the development of nuclear weapons by Iran, a fatwa that remains unpublished according to a recent article by U.S. News. Nevertheless, Kerry said that the United States has "great respect – great respect – for the religious importance of a fatwa." Here are his remarks in context:
Now I want to be very clear. Nothing in our deliberations is decided until everything is decided. And the purpose of these negotiations is not just to get any deal; it is to get the right deal. President Obama means it when he says, again and again, that Iran will not be permitted to get a nuclear weapon. As you all know, Iran says it doesn’t want a nuclear weapon, and that is a very welcome statement that the Supreme Leader has, in fact, incorporated into a fatwa. And we have great respect – great respect – for the religious importance of a fatwa. And what we are effectively trying to do is translate that into legal language, into everyday language within the framework of a negotiated agreement that everybody can understand, which requires everybody to have certain obligations and ultimately be able to guarantee that Iran’s program, its nuclear program, will be peaceful now and peaceful forever.
    Given the history of fatwas issued by Iranian leaders in the past, Kerry's "great respect... for the religious importance of a fatwa" seems curious. The most notorious of these fatwas was issued in 1989 and called for the death of Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. Although various reports have surfaced over the years regarding the status of that fatwa, as recently as last month a senior Iranian cleric affirmed that it is still in effect. Other fatwas over the years have called for things as varied as the death of Jerry Falwell to prohibitions against members of the opposite sex chatting online.
    Secretary Kerry's reference to the "religious importance" of Iran's purported anti-nuclear fatwa seems particularly significant given the vehemence with which Kerry and President Obama deny any connection between the Islamic State and true Islam. Iran, officially the Islamic Republic of Iran as the White House and State Department routinely refer to it, is the most significant state sponsor of terror in the world according to the State Department and has been on the list for over 30 years. Yet the Obama administration exhibits no reticence when it comes to ascribing "religious importance" to a fatwa issued by those in Iran who claim to represent Islam. The State Department did not reply to a request for comment on this apparent disparity.
    In spite of Kerry's glowing reference to the anti-nuclear arms fatwa and its "religious importance", reporters at Kerry's press appearance in Egypt appeared unmoved. Of the four questions asked of Kerry after his remarks, only one addressed the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and that one inquired as to the possible fallout from the letter Senator Tom Cotton and 46 fellow GOP senators to the Iranian leadership. Margaret Brennan of CBS News inquired, "...Given the recent comments by the Supreme Leader as well as some of U.S. allies, do you think that the GOP letter has undermined the diplomacy and made reaching of an agreement that much harder?" Unsurprisingly, Kerry's reply strongly suggested he agreed.



Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Ahead of Deal, Top Intel Organization Plays Down Iran's Sponsorship of Terrorism

    Sunday night, Stephen Hayes noted (via Twitter) a Times of Israel article that the 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Communities delivered annually by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to a Senate committee had "removed Iran and Hezbollah from its list of terrorism threats" after having been included in prior years.
    For each of at least the past four years, the report from Clapper has featured a section early in the document entitled "Terrorism". In the 2015 report, that section spans pages 4 and 5 of the report and is completely silent about both Iran and Hezbollah. Other sections of the report mention Iran as a cyber threat and talk about Iran's nuclear program as a potential threat, but even when discussing specific threats country by country, the section dedicated to Iran (four paragraphs on page 14) does not mention terrorism as a reason that nation is an "ongoing threat" to the United States. The open sentence reads:
The Islamic Republic of Iran is an ongoing threat to US national interests because of its support to the Asad regime in Syria, promulgation of anti-Israeli policies, development of advanced military capabilities, and pursuit of its nuclear program.
     In stark contrast to the 2015 report, each of the three preceding reports not only singles out Iran for terrorism, but actually gives the country (sometimes paired with Hezbollah) its own subheading. Here are excerpts from the Terrorism section of each of those three reports:

2014:

2013:

2012:

    As Hayes noted on Twitter regarding the removal by US intelligence of Iran and Hezbollah as worldwide terror threats, "If true, jaw-dropping." This closer look at the last four annual reports seems to indicate that it is indeed true.



Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

John Kerry: 'By What Right Do People' Dispute Climate Change?

    Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the Atlantic Council Thursday morning as part of the Road to Paris Climate Series and he compared the certainty of human-caused climate change to the law of gravity and to the temperature at which water freezes. He also questioned the right of anyone to dispute or deny that humans are causing climate change [emphasis added]:
So stop for a minute and just think about the basics. When an apple falls from a tree, it will drop toward the ground. We know that because of the basic laws of physics. Science tells us that gravity exists, and no one disputes that. Science also tells us that when the water temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns to ice. No one disputes that. 
So when science tells us that our climate is changing and humans beings are largely causing that change, by what right do people stand up and just say, “Well, I dispute that” or “I deny that elementary truth?” And yet, there are those who do so. Literally a couple of days ago, I read about some state officials who are actually trying to ban the use of the term “climate change” in public documents because they’re not willing to face the facts. 
Now folks, we literally do not have the time to waste debating whether we can say “climate change.” We have to talk about how we solve climate change. Because no matter how much people want to bury their heads in the sand, it will not alter the fact that 97 percent of peer-reviewed climate studies confirm that climate change is happening and that human activity is largely responsible. I have been involved in public policy debates now for 40-plus years, whatever, since the 1960s. It is rare, rare, rare – I can tell you after 28 years-plus in the Senate – to get a super majority of studies to agree on anything. But 97 percent, over 20-plus years – that’s a dramatic statement of fact that no one of good conscience has a right to ignore.
    Kerry also said that although from "Venezuela to Iraq to Ukraine, there is no shortage of energy challenges in the world today", "at the top of the list of energy challenges is climate change." The United Nations is holding a conference on climate change in Paris later this year.
    When asked if Kerry was suggesting that people do not have the right to dispute or deny that humans "are largely causing" climate change and if perhaps he regretted his choice of words, a State Department official replied, “The Secretary’s comments speak for themselves.”
    Kerry's full remarks are here.



Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.