Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Aug. 5 2014 8:34 AM

The Pro-Troop Charity That Happens to Give Millions of Dollars to “Tea Party” Consultants

More than a year ago, ProPublica's Kim Barker published a long investigation into the world of Sal Russo and Tea Party Express. Russo, a California Republican consultant (and quote machine), launched several PACs that sold themselves as the avatars of the grassroots. All of them ended up paying hefty fees to Russo's consulting firm.

Of the $9.3 million spent by Our Country Deserves Better, more than $3.8 million went to Russo, Marsh and Associates, employees or others connected to the firm. Of the $3.9 million spent by the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, $2.4 million went to the firm and its associates. The pro-military Move America Forward Freedom PAC spent almost $143,000.

But that story didn't slow down the Express. TPE played big in the 2014 establishment-Tea Party primaries, which are only wrapping up this week. Mississippi's Chris McDaniel and Kansas' Milton Wolf, among others, campaigned with the Tea Party Express. (Literally. There's a maroon TPE bus that chugs around the country for political rallies.) Russo-world looked pretty bulletproof, able to play in primaries no matter what was written about its finances.

This Kim Barker story might change that. For longer than the Tea Party Express has existed, Russo has consulted for Move America Forward (as opposed to MoveOn, get it?), a group that ostensibly raises money to send supplies to the troops. Barker appears to be the first reporter to notice that Charity Navigator was warning people not to give to Move America Forward, and then to keep digging. Sure, MAF does send packages to the troops. It also:

- Raised money for the 1st Marine Division, claiming it had sent 800 packages to Afghanistan, when the 1st Division was actually in Okinawa.

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- Snagged photos from other charities, military sites, and sources like Pinterest to illustrate what it claimed were Move America Forward operations. Here, for example, is an April 2013 update on a supply deliver, and the 2004 stock photo it used.

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- Recycled the story of a Marine whose legs were taken by a roadside bomb, without his permission.

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It goes on like this, all toward Barker's point—that according to its last five tax returns (i.e., the life of the Tea Party Express), MAF paid $2.3 million to Russo or his firm. Thirty percent of donations to MAF went to consulting fees, for a political firm. And no one can say how fungible the money is, or whether MAF donors are also tapped to give political donations to TPE.

Well, that's not true. We know that the MAF email list intermingles with the TPE list. Barker reports that a "ProPublica reporter's father" sigend up for MAF emails, then started getting TPE appeals. I went the other way; I subscribed to TPE emails, via an address I use for that sort of work. Having never subscribed to MAF, I have gotten every one of the appeals mentioned in Barker's article. That's where the screenshots come from in this post. It wasn't exactly a secret that the groups shared resources. MAF emails instruct you to send a check to 8795 Folsom Blvd., Suite 103, in Sacramento. That's the same address and suite as Tea Party Express. Move America Forward is clearly part of the conservative sphere, appealing to right-wing stars and asking them to help raise funds. And over the years, no one seemed to check the Charity Navigator page. 

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Aug. 4 2014 6:36 PM

Dark Chocolate and the Derp Gap

Earlier today I tweeted the pathetic tale of a Kentucky Democratic strategist who decided the best way to spend her Saturday was challenging the Bluegrass State cred of Sen. Mitch McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao. (As the strategist kept saying, Chao is Asian. This is not actually an impediment to her living in Kentucky.) A Twitterer informed me that "between this and the Pelosi tweet," it was a hell of a day for Democrats and racism.

The Pelosi tweet? I had to click over to, the conservative site that aggregates Twitter talk, to find out what the Internet was reacting to.

"As Democrats have reminded everyone on numerous occasions, today is President Obama’s birthday," wrote "Twitchy staff," by way of explanation. "Nancy Pelosi joined the 'happy birthday' parade today perhaps in a way that would have gotten her in trouble if she were a member of a different party. Now just imagine if a Republican said that."

Had a Republican said it, he would have reflected the reality that the Obamas prefer dark chocolate. Like most machines that can connect to Twitter, my computer can connect to a larger Internet, where this fact can be discovered in a few seconds, as in this 2013 tweet from Pelosi.

But as the comment thread from Pelosi's new tweet proves, lots of people assumed 1) that the Democratic leader in the House was making a racial joke (or gaffe) at the president's expense, that 2) the lack of outrage about this suggests that the media protects its own, and that 3) it made more sense to fulminate about the situation than to Google around about it. Between Mo Brooks and Dark Chocolategate, quite the day for projection about racial attitudes.

(More very serious analysis of the Derp Gap can be found here.)

Aug. 4 2014 4:40 PM

Why Is Rand Paul Claiming He “Never“ Wanted to Phase Out Aid to Israel?

Sen. Rand Paul is spending much of this week in Iowa, stopping in all four congressional districts, opening GOP offices, and returning Saturday for a forum put on by the Iowa Family Leader. Iowa, coincidentally, will hold the nation's first 2016 presidential caucus in 18 months. So Paul is being covered as a "presidential front-runner," tailed by reporters who want to ask him questions.

How's it going, Chris Moody?

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Monday denied that he once supported ending federal aid to Israel—an idea he proposed as recently as 2011.
“I haven’t really proposed that in the past,” Paul told Yahoo News when asked if he still thought the U.S. should phase out aid to Israel, which has been battling Hamas in Gaza for weeks. “We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. You can mistake my position, but then I’ll answer the question. That has not been a position—a legislative position—we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid. That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money—more money—to the Iron Dome, so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel."

Twice—twice!—Paul denies he ever had a "legislative" proposal to cut aid to Israel. As Moody (and everyone else on the trail) explains, Paul actually proposed a cessation of all foreign aid, back in 2011, when he was coming up with ways to erase the budget deficit in one year. As a bunch of people reported at the time, this was a bold and unusual position (even Eric Cantor proposed cutting all aid except aid to Israel—sorry, Pakistan) and it put Paul under a microscope. He told ABC News that Israel was "an important ally, but ... their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world." In an interview with me, he went further:

We had $500 billion of cuts. The cuts to that one particular country were 3/5 of 1 percent of it. And you know what? Netanyahu has come out in favor of less foreign aid and less dependence on America. There are many right-wing Likud politicians who think that it hampers their sovereignty. But the bottom line is, it has nothing to do with Israel or their allies or anything.

In 2013 Paul visited Israel, and I got a chance to ask him if touring the country and seeing the settlements in the West Bank had changed his thinking in any way. He reiterated that the country, in the long run, would be better off with less foreign meddling, even if that meant less aid.

It's really the presumption of whether we should be dictating to other countries—even if they are our friends—whether we should dictate every minute aspect of them building in their country. I think that's wrong. But I think it's also a reason you should want to become more and more independent, and not dependent on aid from the United States. Because then you can develop your sovereignty and be more definitive in the things you want.

But in the same conference call with reporters, Paul seemed bullish on aid for Iron Dome. Circling back to today's Iowa quote—I think Paul is trying to separate foreign aid earmarked for Israel from military aid for Israel. That's asking a lot of reporters, as almost all the aid that goes to Israel is foreign military financing, coordinated by the State Department and the Department of Defense. (The last budget contained $3.1 billion of this, for Israel.) Yet that seems to be Paul's argument. He has introduced a bill that would have zeroed out aid to Israel, but he has never specifically targeted military funds. And if you say otherwise, you "mischaracterize" a position that had endeared no small number of foreign policy realists to Paul.

Update, Aug. 4, 2014: Just a couple of weeks ago, Eli Lake wrote about the sentiment, among some American Israel hawks, that the Jewish state would be better off without American military aid. So it's not like Paul's 2011-2013 stance was indefensible.

Aug. 4 2014 3:56 PM

Why Is This Republican Congressman Worried About a “War on Whites”?

Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who arrived in Congress with the 2010 GOP wave, was one of the most vocal opponents of last week's border bill. It was Brooks, really, who reminded the press that any bill could be contorted by the conference committee, and that Sens. Jeff Sessions and Ted Cruz were reminding Republicans of this.

On Monday morning Brooks went on Laura Ingraham's show (which is to immigration restriction what Epic Meal Time is to calorie consumption) and engaged in 12 minutes of predictable recapping about the border fight. Then things got real. Ingraham played Brooks a clip of National Journal's Ron Fournier, warning that the GOP could not survive as the "party of white people." Brooks' response?

"Well, this is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party," he said. "And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It's part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things. Well, that’s not true, OK? And if you look at the polling data, every demographic group in America agrees with the rule of law and securing our borders." He told listeners to seek out a speech Rep. Raul Labrador (whose family is Puerto Rican) gave about the rhetoric. "The Democrats, they have to demagogue on this, and turn it into a racial issue."

Ingraham let all that flow, then gave Brooks a chance to walk back. "I don't think Raul Labrador would probably say there's a war on whites," she said.

"That is in effect what they're doing," said Brooks. "That's the political game."

"They're playing the race card, they're playing the war on women card," said Ingraham. "That's what the left does, but I don't think 'war on whites' is the best phraseology."

She left it there, but within hours the Huffington Post had noticed the exchange, which effectively meant it would go viral. (Coming soon to a Jon Stewart monologue near you.) That got into the story, grabbing a fresh interview with Brooks—who walked back nothing. He was being colorblind; the Democrats were being race-obsessed.

"It's much like the congressmen during the (immigration) debate on Friday: Democrat after Democrat was talking racism and race," he said. "And the motivation for their doing so was to try to cause bloc voters of race to vote solely on skin color. I'm one of those who does not believe in racism and I believe everyone should be treated equally as American citizens. It's high time folks started calling out the Democrats for their racial appeals. Certainly if you were to flip the coin and a white person were to say vote for me because I'm white, it would be an uproar and deservedly so. So why do we allow blacks to say vote for me because I'm black or Hispanics vote for me because I'm Hispanic? Race is immaterial, and everybody ought to be treated the same."

What will the fallout be for Brooks? Nothing—his district, which hugs the Tennessee border, voted by a 2-1 margin for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. No Democrat bothered to run against him this year. Honestly, there's less to Brooks' "war on whites" riff than the headline suggests. Other conservatives, most notably Stanley Kurtz, have described the Obama administration's urban-focused transportation and energy policies as a "war on the suburbs," ways to get the people who fled the cities (white people, though that's not made explicit) to come back in. And the politics of welfare and food stamps have always tracked with opinions about race.

But Brooks wasn't saying any of that. He tried to coin a phrase—like "war on women"—insisting that accusing Democrats of waging this fight was calling out racism.

Aug. 4 2014 1:52 PM

Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, and the Insult That Probably Wasn’t

Brian Beutler noticed something from Kentucky's politicking weekend. At a Republican breakfast, Sen. Mitch McConnell commented on Sen. Rand Paul's presidential ambitions by saying this: "I can say this without fear of contradiction: He is the most credible candidate for president of the United States since Henry Clay." Most commentary about the line has treated it like a compliment; Sam Youngman, who was there, assumed McConnell was talking about the most credible presidential hopeful from Kentucky.

But Beutler heard a veiled insult. "Clay is McConnell’s hero," he wrote.

Rand Paul shares no such affinity. Clay was the “Great Compromiser.” On that abstract score at least, Paul hails from the tradition of John C. Calhoun, not of Henry Clay, even though ironically he now sits at Clay's (and McConnell's) old desk in the Senate. Paul broadsided Clay in his maiden Senate floor speech in February 2011—an unexpected heresy from a freshman politician from Kentucky, which was probably actually directed at McConnell (who keeps a portrait of Clay in his Senate office) rather than at random history buffs who might’ve been watching C-SPAN at the time. It was the legislative equivalent of a subtweet.

If you haven't read Paul's maiden speech in a while—and really, what's been keeping you?—he contrasted Henry Clay negatively with his cousin, the abolitionist Cassius Clay. "Henry Clay's life story is, at best, a mixed message," explained Paul. "Henry Clay's great compromise was over slavery. One could argue that he rose above sectional strife to carve out compromise after compromise trying to ward off civil war. Or one could argue that his compromises were morally wrong and may have even encouraged war, that his compromises meant the acceptance during his 50 years of public life of not only slavery, but the slave trade itself. In the name of compromise, Clay was by most accounts not a cruel master, but a master nonetheless of 48 slaves. He supported the fugitive slave law until his death. He compromised on the extension of slavery into new states. He was the deciding vote in the House to extend slavery into Arkansas."

As Beutler remembers, McConnell did not stick around for the entire speech. But when I asked McConnell's campaign manager Jesse Benton about the line, Benton—who worked for Ron and Rand Paul at the highest levels—dismissed the "diss" theory.

"There hasn't been a McConnell/Paul rift for years," said Benton. "They get along great. This was meant to be a great compliment."

A meaningful one, at least. After all, Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky. Zachary Taylor, who actually won the presidency, lived there most of his life. Clay lost three bids for the presidency, losing the closest of them—1844—when, as Paul said, votes for the anti-slavery Liberty Party spoiled him in New York. But McConnell idolizes Clay, and since 2011, when Paul made that speech, he has slowly walked away from his image as an uncompromising Tea Party candidate, into a more comfortable and warmly covered image as a bridge-building civil liberties advocate.

Maybe McConnell was trying to slip one past a room of Republicans. Or maybe he meant it. I'm in the "meant it" camp, and mark this as a telling and aspirational compliment to a politician that McConnell has an understanding with.

Also, if Paul vacates his seat to run for president, McConnell can summon Trey Grayson back.

Aug. 4 2014 12:50 PM

Watch Rand Paul’s Stirring Limerick About Coal

Kentucky's "Fancy Farm" picnic is the greatest political tradition that I can never remember to get to. (It's tough to run the company's credit card for an event that's going to be taped and available online forever.) Politicians mingle; politicians give brutal roasts of each other, as a crowd whoops in approval. It's the closest that American politics gets to a Comedy Central special—for now. The lede from this year's event seems to be that Alison Lundergan Grimes, the 35-year-old Democrat running against Sen. Mitch McConnell, performed well enough and furthered her reputation as an underrated bruiser. (How much do Republicans wish that Ashley Judd had gotten into the race instead? All of that trolling, all to get a stronger opponent who will make McConnell spend his money down the stretch.)

But the best speech probably came from Sen. Rand Paul. I spent part of Saturday at an event with his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, and I'm at a loss to think of another political family whose second generation is so much more adept than the first. Paul even managed to keep the audience amused with a limerick that featured rhyming so tortured that Torquemada would have banned it.

A sample:

To liberals, she whispers "coal makes you sick"
In Kentucky, she claims "coal makes us tick"
To the liberals, she sells her soul
The same ones who hate Kentucky coal

What's great about this? The chutzpah. Seven years ago, when campaigning for his father, Paul called coal "a very dirty form of energy" and "one of our least favorable forms of energy." And now, right before setting off on a political tour of ethanol country,* he's got the biggest applause line about the greatness of coal, the need to restore Kentucky's coal industry.


Aug. 4 2014 10:52 AM

Meet the Republican Elected by Attacking “Bigotry,” Who Went on to Vote for Deportations

Friday night's immigration votes in the House happened with only a little time to make the next news cycle. Generally, the conservatives who argued that a vote would benefit the party nothing—that Republicans were better off carping about Barack Obama's failures—seem to have been proved right.

But before the votes are memory-holed, one note about DACA. In order to secure enough conservative votes to pass the scaled-down border bill, Republicans had to hold a separate vote "to prohibit certain actions with respect to deferred action for aliens not lawfully present in the United States." Basically, to undo Barack Obama's 2012 executive order that granted a sort of amnesty to "childhood arrivals," and which has been used by nearly 680,000 "DREAMers" to get work permits.

The roll call vote on that bill is a map of the 2014 election landscape. Only four Democrats voted "aye," three of whom are up for re-election in deep red districts. (The fourth, North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre, is retiring.) Only 11 Republicans voted against it, and all of them are either moderate, Hispanic, represent districts with significant Hispanic votes, or running statewide in heavily Hispanic states. (That's Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner.)

One of the Republican "aye" votes jumped out to me. Florida Rep. David Jolly voted with most Republicans; earlier in the day, he'd praised the process that got the votes as "Congress working." (I've asked for but not yet gotten a statement about his DACA vote.) I'd covered Jolly's win this year in the heated, expensive race for Florida's 13th District. In the final debate, Democratic candidate Alex Sink suggested that immigration reform was necessary, and that the Chamber of Commerce (which was hosting the debate) backed it, because "we have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers, and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean our hotel rooms or do our landscaping?"

Jolly, who said nothing about the comment at the time, was later struck by l'esprit d'escalier. "I think Alex Sink's comments reflect a bigotry that should disqualify her from representing the people of this community," he said, "and should disqualify her from serving in the United States Congress. She offended immigrants throughout this community, she offended non-immigrant workers."

What was bigoted about the comment? Jolly never explained, even after local reporters scoffed at the "bigotry" charge, and after the Tampa Bay Times' Adam Smith reminded readers of what else Sink had said.

For every example that you hear, I think about the high school valedictorian — I believe he lives in this district now. High school valedictorian.
He was brought here when he was a young man, 9 or 10 years old. He didn't choose to come here. His parents brought him. He was undocumented. And what does he do? How does he get an education? He did everything right. He became an incredible student. He even eventually ended up going to law school and becoming a lawyer. But right now he can't practice law because of his undocumented status. That's not right.

Sink, in her roundabout way, argued that people brought illegally to the United States as children should have a pathway to citizenship. Jolly accused her of "bigotry" for how she said it. And five months later, he cast a vote to deport people brought illegally to the United States as children.

Jolly has no Democratic challenger for the fall election.

Aug. 4 2014 8:52 AM

George Will: Identity Politics for Me, Not for Thee

August has come to D.C., which means the standards for filling column inches are dropping faster than the sundown temperatures in the desert. In his latest, George Will makes a manful effort by asking why Democrats don't think about nominating the well-liked Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown for president. Is it because Brown has made no effort whatsoever to promote himself for president? No, no—it's because Democrats are obsessed with gender and race, and do not want to restore the patriarchy to the White House.

Sherrod Brown won’t be considered because the Democratic Party’s activist core is incurably devoted to identity politics — the proposition that people are whatever their gender is (or their race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever seems stupendously important at the moment). And the party’s base seems determined to nominate and elect a woman, thereby proving that what has occurred in Britain, Germany, Israel, India, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and other nations can happen here. Feel the excitement.

It's so obviously immature to consider gender or race as criteria for a candidate. Unless, say, you are George Will, on July 25, explaining why Oregon's Republican candidate Monica Wehby is running a strong race for Senate.

Wehby not only has two X chromosomes but also supports abortion rights and the right of states to recognize same-sex marriages, which complicates the Democratic Party’s continuing accusation that Republicans wage “war on women.”

Or if you're George Will, on July 23, explaining why Neel Kashkari is a formidable contender for governor of California.

He relishes “turning upside down” the parties’ stereotypes. The Democratic candidate, 76-year-old Gov. Jerry Brown, is “the old white guy.” Kashkari, the 40-year-old son of Indian immigrants, was born in 1973, the year before Brown was first elected governor ... if California becomes a purple state and Democrats can no longer assume its 20 percent of 270 electoral votes, Republicans nationwide will be indebted to the immigrants’ son who plucked up Goldwater’s banner of conservatism with a Western libertarian flavor.

Or if you're ... wait for it ... George Will, on April 11, explaining why Michigan's Terri Lynn Land may be "the GOP's best answer to the so-called war on women."

Land represents Republicans’ most effective response to Democrats’ ­hyperventilating about the “war on women” — female candidates.

I tried to find a recent Will column in which he took on Republicans for their swerve into identity politics, and their failure to nominate some white guys who might have been better candidates on the merits. Came up short.

Aug. 1 2014 9:52 PM

Republicans Finally Pass a Border Bill. So What’s in It?

One day of predictably bad press, several meetings, three amendments, and a few delays, and presto: The House Republicans managed to pass a version of the border supplemental. Only four of their hard-core flock broke with the majority; one Democrat, Texas' Henry Ceullar, broke with Democrats to support the bill. Republicans wanted to leave for their recesses crowing that they'd passed a bill and the Senate hadn't, which assumes that reporters are idiots, and didn't notice Democrats getting cloture for one version of their bill. It's important to the Republicans' fall campaign to insist that they can achieve things, and the Democrats can't, and they've got to hope that this narrative can be carried forward in sparse town halls, radio hits, and op-eds. 

Yes, it's all very inspiring. You almost feel gauche for asking what's in the bill. Starting with what was added today, the bill allows states to be reimbursed for their National Guards' work on the deportation beat, changes the 2008 human trafficking law to put Central American migrants back in the normal deportation pipeline, and adds "a new restriction that prevents the Secretary of Defense from allowing the placement of unauthorized aliens at military installations if doing so would displace members of the Armed Forced [sic]."

What else?

- The bill requires the State Department to submit reports, every three months, on what Central American countries are doing to stop the migrant train. If they fall short, their foreign aid is cut off completely. Meanwhile, $197,000,000 of foreign aid designated for those countries is cut off an applied to the deportation.

- A companion bill, to be passed later tonight, would end the Deferred Action program begun in 2012; sharp-eyed immigration reporters point out that none of the 580,000 immigrants who took advantage of DACA and got work permits would be able to renew them.

Here's how the bills were summed up in WaPo's nut graf:

The bill would provide emergency funding to deal with the crisis and speed the deportations of most border-crossers. A second measure, scheduled for a vote later Friday, would rescind President Obama’s authority to decide whether to deport certain illegal immigrants in the United States.

In their own statements, Republicans are reminding everyone that they did something, memory-holing yesterday's call for the president to act to solve the crisis, and stressing that their own tough measure will send a message down South: Don't even try to come. I guess it's possible that Guatemalans were as captivated as we were by one house of our legislature in its struggle to concoct a "compromise" between two factions of the same part.

Just one year ago, Republicans were talking about passing their own version of the DREAM Act. Tonight, they put the party on record for the total cessation of Barack Obama's quasi-DREAM Act. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward Steve King.

Aug. 1 2014 4:17 PM

What Obama Meant When He Said “We Tortured Some Folks”

A hastily convened news conference ended with President Obama seeming to make some news. After reporters demanded the president weigh in on whether CIA Director John Brennan should keep his job, they got a yes, and a meandering monologue that ended with this admission: The coming declassified report on interrogations would find that "we tortured some folks."

Torture! This news led the AP's story on the presser. "Obama's remarks on Friday were more emphatic than his previous comments on the subject," wrote Ken Dilanian, "including a 2009 speech in which he trumpeted his ban of 'so-called enhanced interrogation techniques,' and 'brutal methods,' but did not flatly say the U.S. has engaged in torture."

But Obama has used the T-word before. In 2009 he described waterboarding as "torture." Nearly 15 months ago, in the National Defense University speech that was scheduled after the first Edward Snowden leaks, Obama admitted that America had used torture in its aggressive response to the 9/11 attacks—and then he came along and stopped it.

Most of these changes were sound. Some caused inconvenience. But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values -- by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.
So after I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qaeda but we also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leadership. We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home. We pursued a new strategy in Afghanistan, and increased our training of Afghan forces.  We unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.

Why is Obama reiterating this now? Because the report is on the way, and because by being blunt he can go further than the authors of the report will go. (They do not use the word "torture.") And because Obama's approach to the topic, like his approach to the issues discussed in the NDU speech, is an assurance that the worst practices ended when he took over.