06 Sep

The Koch brothers spend — and spend and spend — their summer vacation

It was a big summer for the Koch brothers, the Kansas-based multibillionaires whose collecting impulses go way beyond art and real estate.

Senate seats are much more picturesque, not to say practical.

In the last weekend of August, a full cast of Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, appeared in Texas to audition before one of the brothers’ political financing groups, Americans for Prosperity. Earlier in the summer, GOP Senate candidates Cory Gardner of Colorado, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa appeared before a gathering of two Koch groups, AFP and Freedom Partners. Gardner assured them that his race would be decided by “third-party” financing, and Ernst declared her race “started right here with all of your folks, this wonderful network.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky promised the group that if the Republicans took back the Senate it wouldn’t be debating “gosh-darn proposals” like raising the minimum wage.
And, of course, in August Freedom Partners did most of the spending in the Oregon Senate race.
The brothers really should have come out here. It was a lovely August in Oregon.

Instead, Freedom Partners spent an estimated $3.6 million – enough for several pretty nice places in Cannon Beach, another idea of summer in Oregon – on TV spots in August, way more than the candidates themselves spent. Following the rules on these things – at least until the Supreme Court looks at them again – the ads could not directly urge Oregonians to vote for Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby, but just say nasty things about Sen. Jeff Merkley, and urge voters to call him to say how disappointed they were.

“These days, our families are working hard, doing more with less. We don’t have a choice,” declared the first ad. “We get by with the money we have. But Congress, they’re different. They run out of money, they borrow more… Tell Senator Merkley, put Oregon families first. Stop Washington’s wasteful spending.”

Candidates, of course, can’t coordinate with independent expenditure campaigns – at least not until the Supreme Court looks at them again – and Wehby has affirmed that there’s no connection between her campaign and the Koch, although she welcomed the help.

“This is a race that’s very winnable and people across the country see that,” Wehby has explained.
Her first post-primary ad, starting a week later, echoed the Freedom Partners point, and nearly the language: “Spending in Washington has gotten completely out of control… .Every day, every family has to watch their budget. Why don’t we expect that from our government?”

Scanning the Koch-sponsored ads across the country – if that’s your idea of a good time – reveals considerable similarities. Just as an Oregon ad ends by urging Merkley to “put Oregon families first,” other ads end by encouraging calls to the opposition candidate to stand with Iowa, Arkansas or Colorado, a strong state identity for a campaign with funding coming from someplace else.

As with many political ads, there have also been some issues of fact-checking, including one Americans for Prosperity ad in Arkansas that had to be re-filmed.

It also sounds as if the same highly alarmed woman might be doing the voice-over to many of the different state campaigns.

According to a July analysis by the Sunlight Foundation of Federal Communications Commission filing, Koch-organized operations had bought time on 106 TV stations across the country – a list that at the time didn’t even include Oregon stations yet. In states with tightly contested Senate races, notably North Carolina and Colorado, the list includes purchases by not only Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity, but other Koch political operations such as Generation Opportunity, intended to appeal to younger voters; the 60 Plus Association, for older voters; the American Energy Alliance on energy issues; and Concerned Veterans of America.

The Koch brothers have material for a great essay on how they spent their summer vacation.

This week, The Washington Post estimated that the various Koch operations would spend about $300 million on the 2014 midterm elections. On that basis, you might hope that Oregon TV stations, which could always use a few bucks, might bring in more than just $3.6 million.

But despite the similarity of funding, it would be wrong to think that all Koch-backed candidates are interchangeable.

Monica Wehby, of course, is a pediatric neurosurgeon.

Iowa’s Joni Ernst, by contrast, boasts of castrating hogs.

Even in a massive national campaign spending operation, it’s good to know that regional distinctions survive.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/3/14.

02 Sep

When the Senate returns, it has a few things to say to the CIA

Unlike his close ally in pursuing intelligence abuses, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, Ron Wyden has not yet called for CIA Director John Brennan to quit or be fired. But speaking about the agency in Oregon this month, Ron Wyden used the D.C. magic words:

Special prosecutor.

Whoever is monitoring the Senate for the agency – and this summer, there’s reason to think the agency monitors the Senate very closely – might want to notice that.

Of course, they may have already.

One week before Congress returns for its September session, the Senate – and Wyden in particular – is having not one but two arguments with the CIA, and each one is making the other disagreement worse.

Sometime soon – and it was expected to happen already – Americans are supposed to see the report from the Senate intelligence committee, where Wyden is the second-ranking Democrat, about CIA interrogation techniques. In a Washington that leaks like an uninsulated basement, nobody expects that the CIA should be planning a victory lap.

Reportedly, the report not only describes interrogation techniques considerably more, um, “enhanced” than what we’ve heard before – as President Obama recently said in his homey way, “We tortured some folks” – but also seriously questions whether the tactics brought real intelligence benefit.

“When the American people see this,” says Wyden, “I suspect they’re going to find the contents profoundly disturbing.”

The key word in that sentence may be “when.” The CIA has been reviewing – and redacting, or editing – the report for “national security” interests, and seems to be in no hurry whatsoever to make anything public.

“This is all about the CIA playing stall ball,” says Wyden. “When we get back in September, you’re going to see a full-court press to get this out.”

(Even on issues of serious national security, Sen. Wyden is very attached to basketball analogies.)

Then there’s the question of just what will be released. By all reports, the CIA has been using a very
broad red pencil on the report, and what it’s willing to release may be very different from what the Senate intelligence committee wrote. Last week, Americans learned that one of the officials involved in the editing previously worked as a defense attorney representing CIA staff members on the issue.

“I’ve had eyeballs on the redactions. They are way over the line,” reports Wyden. “You redact stuff for reasons of national security, not political security.”

So the struggle for the American people to find out just what the CIA, and the American government, did in the name of the American people continues. But it turns out the intelligence committee has a whole different fight with the CIA before even getting to that issue.

In March, committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., accused the agency of hacking into the committee’s computer system, allegedly to remove documents that the CIA thought the committee shouldn’t have. CIA director John Brennan was indignant at the accusation.

“As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers – nothing could be further from the truth,” responded Brennan. “We wouldn’t do that. I mean that’s, that’s, that’s just beyond the scope of reason.”

Then this summer, guess what?

At the end of last month, Brennan announced that a review by the CIA inspector general had found that CIA officials had indeed hacked into the committee’s system. As often happens in Washington, it turned out the scope of reason was a little beyond what people had imagined.

That’s when Udall and some others demanded Brennan’s resignation, and in a rare moment, senators were bipartisanly furious.

“We’re the only people watching these organizations,” complained Sen. Angus King, I-Me., “and if we can’t rely on the information that we’re given as being accurate, then it makes a mockery of the entire oversight function.”

This is pretty much what Wyden has been saying – sometimes largely by himself – ever since he joined the intelligence committee soon after 9/11.

The committee has a unique responsibility for oversight of intelligence operations, which can lead members into a sealed room where they can bring no staff and take no notes. But it’s hard to oversee what you’re not allowed to look at, and hard to report when you can’t say what you’ve seen.

If the hacking charge were true, threatened Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in March, “The legislative branch should declare war on the CIA.”

Wyden would never talk about going to war.

But in Washington, D.C., a special prosecutor can be war by other means.

NOTE: This commentary appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 8/31/14

02 Sep

Paying ransoms is an investment in savagery, and in more kidnappings

This is what we know about business, and about life: When you put money into something, you get more of it.

So when you start paying ransoms, you get more kidnappings.

We were reminded of this a long time ago, in Lebanon. Paying kidnappers for American diplomats, businessmen and journalists just caused more of them to be kidnapped.

The same principle holds for kidnappings by the Islamic State, or ISIS.

We also know that money that goes to ISIS kills other people. It pays for guns and ammunition to expand the ISIS zone of control and kill civilians, and maybe soon to kill Americans.

Prisoner exchanges can be different. Israel, which will never pay a ransom, will exchange prisoners for prisoners, often at an exorbitant rate. It’s one thing to prize your citizens; that’s different from financing the next attack on them.

Obviously, if someone I loved were taken prisoner, I would want everything possible done, including writing large checks to terrorists. But if I were president of the United States, and had to think not about one life but about many, it would be a different decision.

In the murder of James Foley, Barack Obama’s choice was not to pay a ransom.

It was to get the people who did it.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 8/30/14