Issa Suddenly Concerned About Capturing Presidential Records (Created After 1/20/2009 Only)

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, waving an iPad in front of senior White House technology officials earlier today, demanded to know whether administration staffers were flouting the Presidential Records Act by conducting work-related business on their personal email systems instead of on the official server. Issa said his purpose was to address so-called “transparency setbacks” in the administration’s record keeping. Presumably, as Issa noted in the hearing, White House staffers could be communicating with the DNC on their personal property, free from public scrutiny.

But in 2008, that very same scenario seemed preposterous to Issa, who raised this point in a similar hearing about possible improper email use in the Bush Administration:

 

"Are we simply going on a fishing expedition at $40,000 to $50,000 a month?" Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked National Archives and White House officials at the hearing. "Do any of you know of a single document, because this committee doesn't, that should've been in the archives but in fact was done at the RNC?"

 

As it turns out, that is quite possibly what happened. Of the 22 million Bush Administration email messages that went missing due to a faulty archiving system, it was widely suspected that Karl Rove and other senior advisors used RNC email systems to conduct official White House business.

Interestingly, Issa defended the loss of the Bush Administration emails because they were using old software. This is just another example of how Issa’s priorities change as quickly as administrations do.

PFAW

At Smithsonian Forum, Hide/Seek Curators Fiercely Defend Controversial Exhibit

On Tuesday night, I sat in on the first session of the Smithsonian’s two-day forum on what it called “Flashpoints and Faultlines: Museum Curation and Controversy.” The forum, despite its somewhat vague title, centered on the particular controversy of curation that it was organized to respond to: the decision by Smithsonian top brass to remove a work of art from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit after the exhibit came under fire from right-wing culture warriors.

Tuesday night’s panels didn’t do much to reconcile those who opposed the Smithsonian’s decision to cut David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibit and those who thought it was a necessary step to tamp down a damaging controversy. But it did provide an outlet those who had been caught up in the controversy to air their grievances – albeit too late to change any decisions.

The most passionate and interesting remarks came from the two co-curators of the Hide/Seek show, whose close-up view of the mechanics of a right-wing smear was fascinating, and led them to be unapologetically clear about what had happened to lead to the Smithsonian’s censorship of its own groundbreaking exhibit.

David Ward and Jeff Katz started working on the Hide/Seek exhibit in 2006, when Ward, as part of an exhibit on Walt Whitman, posted a photo of Whitman and his lover of eight years, labeling it as such. Katz approached ward and told him that his was the first major museum exhibit to mention Whitman’s long-term relationship with a man. Ward said he was “gobsmacked” by this revelation, and the two curators started working on an exhibition that would bring together the themes of sexual difference that had been “hiding in plain sight” in American art.

Both emphasized how remarkable it that their exhibit had been accepted by the Smithsonian at. “The rich museums with extraordinarily powerful boards were scared to take this exhibit,” Katz said, “That it was a national museum with the most to lose that took the exhibit should not be forgotten.”

In fact, Katz added, the very existence of the Hide/Seek exhibit broke a decades-long pattern of prominent museums refusing to take on exhibits dealing with gay and lesbian themes. The Robert Mapplethorpe scandals of the 1980’s and 90’s, Katz said, “set a pattern of blacklisting gay and lesbian themes in art exhibitions, which with the exception of Hide/Seek continues in the museum world today.” The Smithsonian’s censorship was remarkable in part because the museum had an exhibition to censor in the first place, Katz said, while “The passive acts of censorship have been the norm in the museum world for 24 years.”

While the curators praised the Smithsonian’s decision to take the Hide/Seek exhibit, they were unswerving in their criticism of Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough’s decision to remove the work that had become a lightning rod for right-wing critics. Katz said, “This scandal was ostensibly about religion. It was not. It was about politics.”

The Smithsonian, Katz said, had by giving in to the Catholic League-manufactured controversy about Hide/Seek had confirmed the legitimacy of anti-gay critics. Removing the Wojnarowicz work from the exhibit, he said, “didn’t extricate the museum from [the culture war attacks], it implicated it.” Katz spoke of the hate mail he received after the Catholic League had distributed his personal contact information. He said he at first tried to respond personally to each of thousands of emails, but was invariably met with more hate. “I realized this is not a discussion, this is not a conversation,” he said.

Secretary Clough had opened the forum with a speech on explaining his decision to censor one work from Hide/Seek because, he said, “Above all, I wanted to keep the exhibition open.” I asked Katz and his co-panelists – a museum director and a Smithsonian curator– if it was ever appropriate or effective to remove one work of art from a show in order to save an exhibit or a museum or an entire institution. All answered “no.”

Thom Collins, a museum director who spoke of the numerous funding threats he had received in his work at publicly funded museums, said “As in any situation when you want to negotiate effectively, you have to be willing to walk away from the table.”

Katz added that removing a work from an exhibit in response to criticism “inherently aligns you with the censorious voices, and that’s a position a museum should never be in.” He added that in reacting so quickly to congressional Republicans’ threats of withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars of Smithsonian funding, the Smithsonian was “selling itself short” – that if our national museums were stripped of their funding “the American people would not stand for it.”

Earlier this month, PFAW held a panel discussion in New York to discuss censorship of the Smithsonian's Hide/Seek exhibit, featuring President Michael Keegan, artist AA Bronson, PFAW founder Norman Lear, critic Blake Gopnik, journalist Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and art museum director Dennis Barrie.

Michael Keegan's suggestions of ten questions for the Smithsonian panelists can be viewed here.

PFAW

The Right's Use of Records Requests to Chill Dissent and Attack Academics

In Wisconsin and Michigan, we are seeing what appears to be the latest right wing tool to intimidate and harass its critics: extensive – and baseless – public records requests against academics at public universities. The consequences for the free and open debate on which our democracy depends are serious indeed.

Last week, Wisconsin Republicans clamped down on criticisms of their party's efforts to undermine workers' rights by filing a broad demand for copies of all of the emails of University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Cronon that mention Governor Scott Walker, the eight Republican state senators who have been targeted for recall, or unions that represent government employees. Cronon had recently penned a blog post calling attention to the work of a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its apparently significant influence on Republican state lawmakers, including those in Wisconsin such as Governor Walker. The message was clear. Criticize what we do and we'll come after you to see what we can dig up to smear you with.

Any thought that this might be an isolated response was quickly shattered when similar requests were made for Wisconsin-related e-mails at three Michigan universities. Rather than being from the Wisconsin GOP, these were from a right-wing organization called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. They filed requests for e-mails of the faculty of the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center, the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, and the Labor Education Program of Michigan State University. The requests cover not only e-mails relating to the Wisconsin clash over the labor rights, but, according to press reports, also any e-mails mentioning Rachel Maddow.

Aside from their far right conservative ideologies, the Mackinac Center and ALEC have something else in common: Although not well known among the general public, they are part of a network of right wing ideological organizations that have been heavily funded over the years by many of the same small group of wealthy funders, including the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Coors family, the Scaife family, and corporate giant Exxon Mobil.

It is not likely a coincidence that these two right wing organizations employed the same unusual tactics in two different states just days apart. Who knows where they will go next. Clearly this is a pattern. And, unfortunately, it's a familiar one. Just as in the McCarthy era, academics face intimidation and harassment and possible threats to their reputations if they take public stands against the far right. The specific method of intimidation may be different (i.e., public records requests), but the goal is the same.

This intimidation is as insidious now as it was more than half a century ago, because it does not matter that the targets have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. As we have seen, all it took was one purloined e-mail, taken out of context and distorted beyond all recognition, to manufacture the phony "Climategate" scandal that threatened the reputation of climate scientists around the world and set back climate change regulations by years.

Anyone doubting that the far right is both willing and able to destroy their reputations with such distortions needs look no farther than the devastating video "exposés" of ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood. The ACORN video came first and essentially destroyed the organization. In the best traditions of McCarthyism, the right now uses any association with ACORN to discredit its opponents. They are hoping for equal success with NPR and Planned Parenthood.

People For the American Way strongly supports the Freedom of Information Act and its state and local equivalents. Opening government records to the public serves as an essential check on the abuse of government power. Indeed, the Bush Administration prepared for its long war against civil liberties in the administration's early days by essentially reversing the Clinton Administration's presumption that FOIA requests should generally be granted unless there is some reason to deny it.

Such laws exist to expand public dialogue and the dissemination of information affecting the public welfare. But the rights granted by FOIA laws, like so many others, have limitations and can be abused. A demand for information can be made not to hold government accountable and enhance public debate, but instead to harass, intimidate, suppress public debate, and keep information and opinions out of the public square. This is particularly true when it is aimed at individuals in state academic institutions.

That's what we see happening in Wisconsin and Michigan.

The public has a right to know about the activities of government entities working in its name. When a government entity has the authority to issue licenses, allocate funds, imprison people, conduct safety inspections, conduct elections – the core activities of government, all of which have substantial impacts on individuals, businesses, and groups – open records laws can help ensure that these tasks are done lawfully, without favoritism or waste. Reflecting how often members of the public request such information, many government organizations have entire offices dedicated to fulfilling these records requests.

So how often does a member of the public submit a record request for, say, the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan? I asked Roland Zullo, a research scientist there. He had to think about it because such requests are so rare, but he thinks the last one was about five years ago, a fishing expedition from a conservative organization essentially seeking all of their records going back to the 1950s. When the organization learned how much it would have to pay to cover the costs of its truly expansive request, it apparently backed off.

The Supreme Court has recognized the unique role that universities, including public universities, play in maintaining our liberties. As it stated in 1957, during the McCarthy era, "[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

That is why the American Historical Society has strongly condemned the efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to intimidate Professor Cronon:

The purpose of the state's Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

We should recognize that public universities are a unique hybrid. They are funded by the public, and we should be able to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and legally. But their work also contributes to the robust debate over public issues without which our freedom will die. And that debate requires that we protect academic freedom and ensure that faculty have no reason to feel intimidated for asking difficult questions, conducting their research and writings, and making statements that those in power do not wish to hear.

That is the American Way.

PFAW

Wisconsin Republicans Clamp Down on the Right to Criticize Them

Wisconsin Republicans have escalated their assault on Democrats, liberals, unions, and anyone else who does not fall into line for their ideological agenda. This time, it is the right to criticize the Republican Party that is under attack, as the Cap Times reports:

The Wisconsin Republican Party, apparently stung by a blog post written by UW-Madison history professor William Cronon, has responded by asking the University of Wisconsin-Madison for copies of all of Cronon's office e-mails that mention prominent Republicans or public employee unions.

Cronon revealed the GOP's Freedom of Information Act request in his Scholar as Citizen blog post late Thursday evening along with a lengthy, and typically scholarly, defense.

In his inaugural blog post on March 15, Cronon, one of the UW's academic stars, had sketched the apparent influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadow conservative policy group that works with Republican state legislators, on Gov. Scott Walker's legislative agenda. It was the first time the respected professor had used a blog format and he was, to put it mildly, surprised by the response. The blog generated more than half a million hits. For many of his readers, it was the first time they were aware of the organization and its involvement with conservative legislators around the country.

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, major Walker campaign contributors, provide funding support for ALEC. ...

The Republican request, filed two days after Cronon's March 15 post appeared, asks for "Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon's state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell."

The named individuals are the Republican governor, the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate, and the eight Republican senators targeted for recall.

Professor Cronon has written a long, must-read response to this political effort to intimidate him for daring to question the Republican Party.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's assault on academic freedom in Virginia. Academic freedom exists only in name if scholars questioning the Republican Party are bullied into not using it. In that sense, the Wisconsin assault against Professor Cronon is directly related to all the other ways that the modern-day GOP is actively undermining the infrastructure of our democracy, giving us:

  • elections where significant numbers of the GOP's opponents are prevented from voting;
  • campaigns where the GOP's opponents can't be heard over corporate millions;
  • the right to protest, but if you oppose a Republican official he may secretly plant troublemakers among your group to discredit you;
  • the right to a free press, but if a Republican who you criticize sends his goons to rough you up, the Party will not bat an eye;
  • the right to form a union that cannot collectively bargain;
  • the right to free speech, but if you displease the GOP you risk becoming the subject of phony video smears followed up by legislative attack;
  • the right to lobby, but your lobbying firm loses access to a GOP-dominated Congress if it hires Democrats.

In isolation, the incident in Wisconsin is terrible. But to see it only in isolation would be a grave mistake.

If the party officials involved with this are not condemned and banished from the party, this incident will do long-term damage. Continuing party support for those who undermine the foundations of our free society – as in the examples above – significantly lowers the bar for what departures from the principles of democracy are now acceptable.

This incident should be a rallying cry for Americans to protect the liberties and rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

PFAW

Restoring Justice, Step by Step

On Monday, Eric Holder was confirmed as Attorney General. Big news ... and good news for Americans who depend on the Justice Department to defend their rights. A bit more under the radar, Monday also saw another important piece of news at the DOJ. Leslie Hagen, a Justice Department attorney who was fired by Monica Goodling because of rumors that she was a lesbian, was rehired to her previous job at the Department.

This is just one step in cleaning up the appalling mess at the DOJ left by egregious politicization during the Bush administration. Monica Goodling, senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was by all objective standards unqualified for such a high post. Her only "qualifications" -- the only ones that mattered in the Gonzales DOJ -- were that she was a partisan ideologue who graduated from Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School and was committed to reshaping the Justice Department to operate on a right-wing agenda.

Even though the politicization of the DOJ under President Bush was shameful (and possibly criminal), some senators apparently think it should continue and are taking their marching orders from the Radical Right. The next targets of their witch hunt? Three more of the president's eminently qualified DOJ nominees: David Ogden, Thomas Perrelli and Dawn Johnsen.

Dawn Johnson, for example, has been tapped to head the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) -- the office that, under the Bush administration, produced the memos that served as its guidelines for detainee treatment and executive overreaching. Johnsen has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration's legal justifications for its policies. And, in her extremely impressive legal career, she spent several years at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Already some senators like Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- who earlier this week assailed the Johnsen nomination on the Senate floor -- are suggesting that, in their view, pro-choice bona fides should be an instant disqualifier.

Quickly confirming the rest of President Obama's Justice Department team will be one more important step, but there's still much more to be done to repair what was so damaged during the Bush years.

Let's look back at just a few of the disasters born out of DOJ's right-wing politicization:

  • political firings of U.S. attorneys;
  • political firings of staff attorneys, especially in the Civil Rights Division;
  • refusal to properly enforce civil rights laws, particularly those protecting voting rights;
  • Department approval and justification of unconstitutional policies from warrantless domestic spying to the denial of habeas corpus and torture.

People For the American Way will be pushing for investigations into these wrongdoings. I know how important this issue is to our activists -- you've pitched in time and again over the last eight years as we've pushed for accountability and the rule of law at the DOJ, and hundreds of you wrote me impassioned emails last week about just how critical it is to keep pushing.

Karl Rove and others who are subpoenaed to testify or provide documents must comply and cooperate not just with Justice Department probes into these matters, but also with any and all congressional investigations. Congressional action is what's needed to get to the bottom of what happened, hold those responsible accountable and prevent similar abuses of power from happening in the future.

Making sure investigations happen and proceed effectively and making sure President Obama's other Justice Department nominees are confirmed smoothly are just two things we'll be working hard for in the coming weeks, and there will be much more.

I'd also like to take a moment to ackowledge Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who is in the hospital recovering from surgery. She's a true defender of our constitutional values and I know you'll join me and the rest of the staff of People For in wishing her a speedy recovery.

PFAW

More Ugliness from the Right: Anti-Gay Sentiment in Campaign Literature

As we have documented in recent days, the approaching elections have, with an assist from the McCain campaign and GOP strategists, brought some real ugliness into the open, including outright racism. 

Of course, an election year would not be complete without overt and covert appeals to anti-gay sentiment from right-wing politicians.  It’s at its most overt in the anti-equality ballot campaigns in California, Florida, and Arizona, which are being massively funded by national Religious Right groups and Mormon donors. 

But it also shows up in appeals grounded in the favored language of family values.  Below you can see scans of a mailing for an Ohio State Representative candidate who announces, under the heading “Love of Family,” that “Michael Keenan will strengthen families by keeping marriage between a man and a woman.”

No word on how that strengthens Ohio families who might be dealing with lost jobs, slumping wages, lack of affordable health care, or any of the other difficulties that could put stress on marriages.  Thank goodness he’ll keep committed gay couples from the legal protections that marriage can provide!  Think how much that will strengthen Ohio’s struggling families!

Kennan Flyer Page 1

Kennan Flyer Page 2

PFAW