Most Americans support religious holiday displays

‘Tis the season for people with nothing better to do to argue over whether religious holiday displays like as Nativity scenes have a place on public property. But according to the results of a recent poll, a majority of Americans have no problem with the displays.

Polling data out from Pew shows 44 percent of Americans feel that Christian holiday symbols should be allowed on government property, even in instances where they are not accompanied by other religious holiday fixtures. Twenty-eight percent report that they are fine with Christian holiday displays as long as other religious traditions are celebrated on the public grounds as well.

Just 20 percent said all religious displays should be banned from government property.

The high level of support for Christian religious displays in America can be explained by another statistic Pew observed:

[M]ost Americans believe that the biblical Christmas story reflects historical events that actually occurred. About three-quarters of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born to a virgin, that an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, and that wise men, guided by a star, brought Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. And eight-in-ten U.S. adults believe the newborn baby Jesus was laid in a manger.

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story — the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story — reflect events that actually happened. Among U.S. Christians, fully eight-in-ten (81%) believe in all four elements of the Christmas story. Even among people who are not affiliated with any religion, 21% believe all these events took place, and 37% believe at least one (but not all) of them occurred.

Just over 40 percent of Americans plan to attend religious services as a part of their holiday celebrations.

Even with high levels of support for religious holiday displays, some groups have challenged the decorations as violations of the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

This week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and two Franklin County, Indiana, residents sued government officials for a religious display — a Nativity scene that includes no non-Christian religious or secular holiday symbols — at the Franklin County Courthouse.

“Any reasonable person viewing this display would conclude that its principal effect is to advance religion,” said ACLU of Indiana Senior Staff Attorney Gavin M. Rose, who is assisting in the suit. “The First Amendment protects these kinds of displays by individuals and groups on private property, but also makes clear that displays on public property, which is maintained by taxpayers, cannot demonstrate a preference for religion.”

Michelle Obama got asked for help by racist Target shopper

The president and first lady recently told People magazine stories of what they feel were “racist experiences” they have endured being black in America. But while it’s undeniable that there are all manner of examples of a lingering equality deficit when it comes to certain race-related issues in the United States, some Americans might have a tough time taking the Obamas seriously.

Michelle Obama told the magazine how she became offended when no one recognized her as the first lady while on a shopping trip at a Target store.

“The only person who came up to me in the [Target] store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her,” she told the magazine.

Obama added, “Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn’t anything new.”

So, the first lady went on a shopping trip to Target and was forced to endure an interaction with another human being who needed help getting something off a shelf.

The average American — black, white, yellow, red, green or purple — probably wouldn’t consider such a basic request for help a slight. And would most Americans expect the president’s wife to be slumming around Target in a baseball cap like the rest of us proles?

A thinking person would assume that Obama must’ve looked like “someone who could help” because, at 5 foot 11 inches, she’s rather tall for a woman. Right?

Nope. According to Obama, she was seen as the help.

Because, you know, a black woman shopping in a suburban Target the 21st century is just so out of the ordinary for white folks to see in America.

How unbelievably racist!

Shame on you, vertically challenged Target shopper, for not assuming that the first lady was shopping at your neighborhood Target with you on that fateful day.

It sounds a lot like Obama is suggesting that people shouldn’t have cordial, mundane interactions with people of other races because it could be offensive. But maybe she’s just ticked that she and the president don’t have “dear leader” murals in every town to help Americans living in the real world more easily recognize them when they’re doing mundane things.

But it gets worse. President Obama relayed his own racist memory of being handed keys outside of a restaurant, letting Americans in on a socially repugnant (and totally made up) secret: People in the U.S. have been conditioned to believe that all valets are black, or all black men are valets… or something.

“There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys,” he said.

The president shouldn’t feel too bad, though. It seems this sort of thing happens to white folks as well — even top U.S. generals dressed in full military regalia.

Back in 2011, none other than top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett mistook Four-star Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli — the U.S. Army’s No. 2 guy at the time — for a waiter and ordered him to fetch her a glass of wine during a function in Washington.

But Chiarelli took it in stride.

“It was an honest mistake that anyone could have made. She was sitting, I was standing and walking behind her and all she saw were the two stripes on my pants which were almost identical to the waiters’ pants — really,” he told CNN.

Federal judge declares Obama’s immigration actions unconstitutional

A federal judge in western Pennsylvania declared portions of President Barack Obama’s immigration executive actions unconstitutional in an opinion handed down Tuesday.

“The Court holds that the Executive Action is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers and the Take Care Clause of the Constitution,” wrote Judge Arthur Schwab.

Schwab’s opinion, the first addressing Obama’s immigration expansion, says that the president went “beyond prosecutorial discretion,” which the White House had previously said gives the president to act on immigration laws.

The Obama administration’s application of prosecutorial discretion in differing immigrant deportations, the judge argued, could allow future presidents to differ prosecutions in other matters.

“President Obama has stated,” Schwab wrote, “that he is constrained from issuing an Executive Action/Order on immigration because such action would exceed his executive powers… While President Obama’s historic statements are not dispositive of the constitutionality of his Executive Action on immigration, they cause this Court pause.”

The judge also noted that Congress’s inaction on immigration didn’t alter Obama’s constitutional authority.

“Congress’s lawmaking power is not subject to Presidential supervision or control. … Perceived or actual Congressional inaction does not endow legislative power with the Executive.”

The case Schwab ruled on involved an illegal immigrant who was deported and returned to the U.S. — the legal question being whether Obama’s actions protect the individual from future deportation.

Schwab didn’t issue an injunction against Obama’s actions, so it’s unclear what weight the opinion carries.

A separate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the immigration order, filed by the attorneys general of 24 states, is currently on its way to court in southern Texas. States currently involved include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Census: U.S. to be ‘majority minority’ nation by 2044

New projections out from the Census Bureau show that the U.S. is on track to be a “majority minority” nation by 2044, with white Americans making up just under half of the population.

According to Census, the number of whites in the U.S. will increase modestly through 2025 before experiencing a gradual decline into 2060 due to an increasingly aging population and fewer births.

The year 2044 will mark a tipping point where whites make up 49.7 percent of the U.S. population with the nation’s remaining population being 25 percent Hispanic, 12.7 percent black, 7.9 percent Asian and 3.7 percent biracial.

Over the next 46 years, Census expects the rate of growth for the nation’s Asian and Hispanic populations to double, 129 percent and 115 percent respectively.

A Brookings Institution analysis of the Census numbers contends that the shifting racial numbers likely won’t have a big impact on perceptions of racial disparity:

[C]ontinued racial disparity across generations will occur because of the exit of whites from the younger ages as both old and new minorities take up the slack. Between 2014 and 2060 the minority share of the youth population will rise from 48 percent to 64 percent. While the senior population will also become more diverse, in 2060 whites will still comprise a majority of the age 65 and older population at 55 percent.

While the Census predicts that the racial makeup of the U.S. will certainly change in the coming decades, some observers contend that shifting racial demographics is nothing new to the world’s melting pot nation.

In a 2012 piece, Reason’s Ronald Bailey noted of historical U.S. immigration influxes: “By 2050, just as the earlier waves of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants were assimilated, so too will today’s Hispanic immigrants and their descendants be. For all intents and purposes, Hispanics will become as ‘white’ as Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles.”

No, Obama doesn’t have dirt on Boehner… They just both hate their voters

Matt Drudge of Drudge Report fame and a handful of other members of the conservative punditry took the Republican rollover in the latest budget debates to mean that President Barack Obama must have some salacious dirt on House Speaker John Boehner. But the reality is actually probably less exciting, as both men hold positions that require considerable pandering to the establishment views of their respective parties — and both men are increasingly perturbed by dissension in their ranks.

Boehner has long suffered — at least since the 2010 Tea Party sweep — criticism from a vocal minority of libertarian-leaning Republicans who have occasionally derailed the plans of big government good ol’ boys in the GOP. And even when new-blood congressional conservatives have failed to bring about legislative change, they’ve garnered significant populist support for various small-government ideals by publicly, and raucously, criticizing establishment GOP colleagues whose whipping powers have been inflated by longevity.

Boehner hasn’t been shy about expressing his dislike of the most conservative factions of his party. Last year at this time, after a round of much more heated budgetary debates, wherein the GOP’s most conservative members held the speaker’s feet to the fire, Boehner ranted against so-called “outside groups” meddling in Washington politics.

“They’ve lost all credibility,” Boehner said in a press conference at the time.

“They pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government. Most of you know my members know that wasn’t exactly the strategy I had in mind,” he continued. “The day before the government reopened one of these groups stood and said, ‘well we never really thought it would work.’”

Boehner’s rant became known as the moment he declared “war” on the Tea Party and conservative groups, along with members of Congress identifying with their libertarian-leaning philosophy quietly embarked on a mission to perpetually buck the House’s top Republican.

Boehner entered this year’s budget showdown in a position of major weakness. He couldn’t allow another GOP-led shutdown to transpire and was well aware of many Republicans’ plan to oppose the spending package unless it included strong provisions to curtail Obama’s recent immigration actions.

Meanwhile, House Democrats quietly began plotting to play on Boehner’s inability to round up votes in his own party to remove two late-breaking provisions that had upset many on the left: one a change to the Dodd-Frank financial regulations to benefit Wall Street and the other allowing campaign donations of up to $1,555,200 ($3,110,400 for couples) to national political parties.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a handful of other powerful Democrats quickly labeled the Dodd-Frank changes immoral and an affront to the nation’s working class. Almost simultaneously, anti-Wall Street crusader Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) publicly and forcefully criticized the additions.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, issued a statement saying that it disapproved of the additions but urging Democrats to pass the legislation with them intact.

With Boehner claiming to care about undoing the president’s immigration action without ever actually intending to address it and with Obama pretending to care about reigning in Wall Street and crony politics in spite of his record, there was only one option for the political powerbrokers: join forces in the name of campaign promise inaction.

Boehner got the GOP leadership behind the spending bill, and the White House set about rallying Democrats. In the end, the bill passed with 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats voting in favor.

What’s most revealing, however, is who in the House voted against the bill. That list includes 67 of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans and 139 of the most progressive Democrats.

The Democrats have been in unison for so long following the election of Obama that it’s tough to remember the party’s Bush years, when factions were commonplace. But those days appear to be coming back. And if the Republican Party can manage to remain divided, the American public may be in store for a real treat: a government that focuses on constituents as much as it does on establishment politics.

The bill that just passed wasn’t a compromise; it was a win for the establishment. Cronyism on Wall Street got a wink, immigration policy run amok got a nod and politicians got the promise of increased fundraising opportunities. Voters who believed promises about keeping the president’s immigration policy under control or Obama’s lectures about keeping Wall Street honest got nothing.

But if Obama and Boehner can join forces, so too can members of both parties who disagree with them. Isn’t that the sort of bipartisanship the nation needs?

Charles Koch, the left’s bogeyman, is a social liberal

Veteran journalist Barbara Walters was surprised during a taping of her “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2014″ when she was informed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch that he considers himself a social liberal.

Koch also informed Walters that all of his contributions to public candidates are all completely legal.

“Do you think it’s fair that just because you have billions of dollars, you can influence elections,” Walters asked.

“Well, I contributed to public candidate campaigns and there is a federal limit on how much you can contribute to each individual candidate,” Koch replied. “I obey the law in that regard and feel I am doing it properly.

Walters went on, saying that Koch is primarily disliked because of his support for conservative candidates before asking him to describe his political views.

“I’m basically a libertarian, and I’m a conservative on economic matters, and I’m a social liberal,” Koch, who is an abortion and gay rights supported, said.

The favorite liberal bogeyman added, “What I want these candidates to do is to support a balanced budget. And I’m very worried that if the budget is not balanced, that inflation could occur and the economy of our country can suffer terribly.”

H/T: Truth Revolt

‘F*ck the police’ on motorist’s radio gets him pulled over by angry cop

A Hialeah, Florida, cop who has managed to rack up 16 internal affairs complaints over his 17-year career decided to try for another last month when he pulled over a motorist because he didn’t like the music coming from the young man’s car. The music playing at the time of the stop: “F*ck tha Police,” N.W.A.’s classic rap song, which has, unsurprisingly, experienced newfound popularity in recent years.

Cesar Baldelomar, a 26-year-old Harvard graduate, was heading to his parents’ house to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal when he passed police officer Harold Garzon, who was standing on the side of the street filling out paperwork related to a traffic accident.

Just as Baldelomar passed the officer, the song on his radio changed, kicking off with the verse to a song that anyone familiar with classic hip-hop has heard: “F*ck tha police / Comin’ straight from the underground. A young n**** got it bad cause I’m brown / And not the other color so police think / they have the authority to kill a minority.”

According to Baldelomar’s retelling of what followed to the Miami New Times, Garzon hollered, “Really? You’re really playing that song?”

After he pulled over, Garzon informed the motorist that it was illegal to play music loud enough to be heard by a person 25 feet away.

But Baldelomar, who reportedly holds two Harvard degrees and is currently studying law at Florida International University, disagreed, noting that the noise statute cited by the cop had been struck down.

“In 2012, the state supreme court struck down any law banning loud music,” he said. “I knew that because it was a case I had actually studied in law school.”

After other officers were called to the scene, Garzon demanded proof of insurance. Baldelomar provided an e-card on his phone.

“It’s got to be paper,” the officer claimed, refusing to take the electronic proof, despite Florida being one of 35 states where e-insurance cards are permitted.

In the end, Baldelomar received three tickets: one for not wearing his seat belt (he says he was), one for having an out-of-state license plate (he’s a legal resident of Massachusetts, where he attended school) and one for failure to provide insurance. He reportedly refused to sign them and plans to contest all three.

Notably absent was a ticket for the noise violation. Baldelomar asked where it was and was told not to get “smart.”

“I’m educated. I know my rights. And I speak English, so I can fight this,” Baldelomar told Miami New Times. “But what about when this happens to someone who’s not so lucky? Policing has to change in this country.”

Sandy Hook families sue gun maker, distributor and seller over 2012 tragedy

A group of family members of the tragic 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit implicating the manufacturer, distributor and seller of the AR-15 rifle used in the commission of the crime.

The civil suit, filed by nine families of Sandy hook victims, names Remington Outdoor Co. subsidiary Bushmaster Firearms International, Bushmaster distributor Camfour and Connecticut-based gun shop Riverview Gun Sales as contributors to the deaths of their loved ones.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the assertion that the Bushmaster AR-15 purchased by Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza’s mother at Riverview Gun Sales in 2010 should have never been marketed to civilian consumers.

“The AR-15 was specifically engineered for the United States Military to meet the needs of changing warfare,” attorney Josh Koskoff said in a release. “In fact, one of the Army’s specifications for the AR-15 was that it has the capability to penetrate a steel helmet.”

The civil suit exploits a loophole in the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act which President George W. Bush signed into law to protect gun makers from being sued when their products are used in a criminal manner. Prior to the passage of the legislation, gun manufacturers and dealers had been sued for negligence by gun crime victims on the grounds that they should have predicted criminal misuse of their products.

The plaintiffs are suing based on so-called negligent entrustment. They’ll attempt to prove that the companies named in the lawsuit were negligent in allowing mentally unstable shooter Adam Lanza to gain access to the firearm.

Dennis Henigan, the former legal action director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told The Wall Street Journal that the suit represents a particularly broad application of negligent entrustment.

“The issue in this case will be whether courts are willing to construe the doctrine of negligent entrustment so broadly as to encompass a theory of liability that is based on the sale of a particular gun to the general public instead of to a potentially particular dangerous individual,” he said.

George Kollitides, the CEO of Freedom Group, which owns Bushmaster, addressed attempts to blame his company for the tragedy in an interview with The Washington Times last summer.

“It’s very easy to blame an inanimate object. Any kind of instrument in the wrong hands can be put to evil use. This comes down to intent — criminal behavior, accountability and responsibility,” Kollitides said.

“He killed the gun’s owner, stole her car, stole her gun and then went to a school and killed innocent kids. No background checks could have prevented that. He illegally obtained the guns,” he told. “Only two things could have potentially stopped him: his mother locking up her guns and an armed guard. Even then, he could have driven his stolen car into a playground full of kids. He was intent on killing, which we know is already illegal.”

Even if it seems like the plaintiffs in the case face an uphill battle, the judge presiding over Superior Court in Bridgeport, Connecticut, will have final say in the matter.

Here’s the full lawsuit.

Reports: Afghan quagmire cost nearly $1 trillion with no end in sight

The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest-running military conflict, has cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $1 trillion. And there’s no end in sight.

That’s according to a duo of reports released Sunday by The Financial Times and corroborated by independent researchers. The federal government has never detailed the full cost of the 13-year Afghan conflict.

One FT report breaks down some of the Afghan spending thusly:

  • $765 billion in Congressional appropriations in Defense and State Department spending.
  • Interest paid to the tune of $125 billion on debt the U.S. incurred to fund Afghan war efforts.
  • $134 billion in medical spending for U.S. personnel who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Interestingly, the FT analysis also notes that a majority — 80 percent — of the Afghan war spending has occurred under President Barack Obama’s watch because he dramatically increased U.S. military action in the country after taking office in 2009.

And while the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is said to be winding down, Obama has ordered 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country through 2016.

So what has the costly Afghan war accomplished? Not much, according to the FT reports:

Despite the initial progress, for the past few years the war must be counted a failure. After the winding down of the 2009 “surge” that took the number of Nato troops up to 140,000 — there are now only 13,000 — the Taliban are back in force, and not just in the rural areas where they find it easier to operate. Over 16 days in November, the capital suffered 12 major attacks by insurgents. A series of attacks on Friday and Saturday killed at least 21 people, including 12 members of a landmine clearance team in Helmand and two soldiers of the allied forces near Bagram air base.

Still, the report notes, people on both sides of the Washington establishment are calling for a perpetual U.S. military presence in the country in addition to billions in financial aid to keep the Taliban from undoing modest improvements brought by Western involvement.

To put the current total Afghan war spending into perspective, Congress just approved a $1 trillion bill to almost entirely fund the operations of the U.S. federal government for the next year.

In addition to remaining problems in Afghanistan, the U.S. recently upped its engagement in Iraq to combat a growing threat of a takeover in that country by extremists belonging to the Islamic State (ISIS) terror organization. Of the $64 billion in overseas contingency funding Congress included in its spending bill for war operations, $5 billion has been reserved to combat the ISIS threat.

Research reveals that minimum wage hikes actually hurt workers

The idea of raising the nation’s minimum wage is often championed by entry-level and low-skilled workers, many of whom are forced to live paycheck to paycheck. But a new study from the University of California at San Diego shows that minimum wage hikes can hurt the very workers they are purported to benefit.

USC professors Jeffrey Clemens and Michael Wither examined the 2007 hike that brought the minimum wage to $7.25, finding that the action led to an overall drop in workers take home pay over a three-year period.

“We find that this period’s binding minimum wage increases reduced low-skilled individuals’ average monthly incomes. Relative to low-skilled workers in unbound states, targeted workers’ average incomes fell by $100 over the first year and by an additional $50 over the following 2 years. While surprising at first glance, we show that the short-run estimate follows directly from our estimated effects on employment and the likelihood of working without pay. The medium-run estimate reflects additional contributions from lost wage growth associated with lost experience,” the study says.

The study also found that the employment to population ratio declined at a rapid pace between 2007 and 2009 following the minimum wage hike. Those workers who found themselves out of a job due to the wage hike were often more likely to take unpaid internships, according to the research.

“We find that increases in the minimum wage significantly reduced the employment of low-skilled workers. By the second year following the $7.25 minimum’s implementation, we estimate that targeted workers’ employment rates had fallen by 6 percentage points (8 percent) more in bound states than in unbound states,” the report says. “Binding minimum wage increases resulted in an increase in the probability that targeted individuals work without pay, perhaps in internships, by 2 percentage points.”

Overall, the researchers estimate that the minimum wage hike cost the economy around 1.4 million jobs.

Congressional Democrats, with the backing of President Obama, are currently pushing for a new minimum wage increase to $10.10 per hour. And some states and cities throughout the nation have moved to increase minimum wages locally, raising wages beyond the current Democratic target.

Americans feel politically divided, Washington isn’t helping

A vast majority of Americans think the United States is more politically divided than it has been in years past, and few believe there’s hope for ending partisan gridlock in Washington anytime soon.

According to the results of a recent Pew Research poll, just 44 percent of Americans believe that President Barack Obama will work with congressional Republicans to address the nation’s most pressing problems over the next few years. Even fewer, 28 percent, believe that Republicans are poised to cooperate with the president for the remainder of his time in the Oval Office.

Eighty-one percent of respondents to the Pew survey say that the nation is more politically divided than it has been in the past. And because of a perceived lack of cooperation between Congress and the executive branch moving forward, 78 percent of Americans expect political division in the nation to remain at current levels or worsen over the next five years.

Pew also noted that the number of Americans who expect cordial relations between Obama and the new Republican-controlled Congress is lower than it was following a similar political shift during the Bush administration.

“After Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, 48% said Democratic leaders would cooperate at least a fair amount with former President George W. Bush — 20 points higher than the share saying that about Republicans today. And 52% expected Bush to cooperate with the Democrats,” the polling agency reported.

A lack of cooperation between Obama and lawmakers could have a negative impact on already abysmal approval ratings plaguing both the president and Congress. President Obama’s approval rating is currently at 42 percent, where it has hovered for about a year, and just 22 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing.

Obama administration: All the atrocities belong to Bush

On the heels of the release of a not entirely surprising but unprecedented report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program, President Barack Obama disavowed the agency’s actions and said the torture has harmed the nation’s moral standing in the world. But the White House’s haste to plant the current president on moral high ground and distance him from George W. Bush-era torture has left some pundits wondering how Obama can reconcile his own actions while condemning those of his predecessor.

“Nobody can fully understand what it was like to be responsible for the safety and security of the American people in the aftermath of the worst attack on our national soil,” Obama told the Spanish-language Telemundo Tuesday. “When countries are threatened, oftentimes they act rationally in ways that in retrospect were wrong.”

The long-held Senate intelligence report, which examined more than 6 million pages of CIA material on the agency’s post-9/11 torture programs, found that CIA officials “provided inaccurate information to the White House, Congress, the Justice Department, the CIA inspector general, the media and the American public” with regard to torture practices.

While the current White House is not willing to say whether the Bush-era CIA tactics saved lives, it has been quick to note that the current president doesn’t support such actions.

“The most important question is: Should we have done it? And the answer to that question is no,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl Wednesday.

“The president does not believe that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was good for our national security. He does not believe that it was good for our moral authority. In fact, he believes that it undermined our moral authority, and that is why he banned them,” he said.

There’s just one problem with the Obama White House’s insistence that the torture-induced moral degradation of U.S. actions in the war on terror was relegated to the Bush administration: Apart from a Nobel Peace Prize, the new boss has looked a lot like the old boss.

The New York Times said as much way back in February 2009:

In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.

The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team’s arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees should be shut down based on the “state secrets” doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.

And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government “for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.”

These and other signs suggest that the administration’s changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies.

That largely tacit support of the Bush-era terror policies is less important — and certainly less indicative of its probable blind eye toward torture — than how the Obama administration has filled empty government positions over the years.

Obama appointed Leon Panetta to head the CIA in 2009. Panetta carried out an extensive internal audit of the CIA’s interrogation practices, some of which contributed to the Senate report currently making headlines. But the full Panetta Review has never been released — likely because of the ongoing torture practices it would reveal.

Panetta’s relationship with torture as an Obama appointee goes beyond investigating the practices. In the early days of his tenure at the CIA, Panetta quietly opened loopholes in interrogation restrictions enacted, with much fanfare, by Obama.

That’s about the same time The Wall Street Journal declared that “it seems that the Bush administration’s antiterror architecture is gaining new legitimacy” in response to Obama’s wartime decision-making.

Obama’s embrace of Bush-era policy has only hastened in the years since — and people have noticed.

That’s why Fox News’ Ed Henry asked Earnest this week how the president can disavow Bush-era policies while filling top positions with former Bush officials like John Brennan and James Comey.

Brennan, current top dog at the CIA, is a 25-year veteran of the agency who was appointed deputy executive director under Bush before going on to head that president’s newly created Terrorist Threat Integration Center from 2003 to 2004.

Brennan left government in 2005 to pursue interests in the private sector before returning in 2009 to serve as Obama’s Homeland Security adviser. The first time Brennan came up for consideration as CIA director, he withdrew his name over concerns of his involvement in waterboarding under the Bush administration.

During a press briefing Thursday, Brennan largely defended the CIA actions revealed in the recent Senate report.

“In a limited number of cases, agency officers used interrogation techniques that had not been authorized, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all,” Brennan said.

He added: “The overwhelming majority of officers involved in the program at CIA carried out their responsibilities faithfully and in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided. They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation.”

Comey, Obama’s current FBI director, previously served as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration. During his time in that capacity, Comey endorsed enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation and stress positions.

The official has since reversed his position, but he also doesn’t want to discuss the new torture report.

“I’m not going to go back and talk about my prior roles,” Comey said during a recent news conference. “Maybe when I’m old and gray I can talk about it.”

Aside from his appointments, Obama’s strategies in fighting terror illustrate a disconnect between reality and his criticisms of the previous president.

Henry pointed this out in his exchange with Earnest: “You have repeatedly talked about moral authority. So can you explain how the president believes that it’s un-American to use these techniques, but it was OK to ramp up the drone policy and basically thousands of people around the world, innocent civilians, were killed? What’s the moral equivalency there? How do you have moral authority when innocent civilians are killed by drones?”

According to the current White House, “there is significant care taken and there are significant checks and balances included in the system to ensure any counterterrorism action taken by the United States of America does not put at risk innocent lives.”

Fair enough. Obama doesn’t risk innocent lives with drone strikes and his choice of torture supporters is irrelevant. Americans are to take his word: Any atrocities in the war on terror belong to Bush.

But as long as we trust our leaders at their word, here’s a little gem from Bush, circa November 2005: “We are finding terrorists and bringing them to justice. We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do… to that end in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture.”

Coalition of state lawmakers formed to compare notes on gun control agenda

Charging that members of Congress have failed to pass reforms to combat American gun violence, 200 lawmakers from 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have formed an alliance dubbed the American State Legislators for Gun Violence Prevention (ASLGVP). The group says its goal is advancing legislative gun control efforts in statehouses throughout the nation.

The new gun policy organization held its inaugural meeting in the nation’s capital this week, where members discussed actions they plan to take in their respective states in 2015 and planned to build on gun control advances that have taken place in the past two years. Key elements of the group’s gun control plans include closing so-called gun-buying loopholes in the background check process, identifying relationships between guns and domestic violence, and exploring gun control options in areas with high rates of shooting crime.

The group’s founder, Democratic New York State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, said during a Monday news conference that the group is also intent on cracking down on interstate gun transfers.

“Gun violence isn’t a regional concern or a partisan issue. It’s a tragic crisis affecting Americans across the country,” he said in a statement. “We’ve come together in recognition of the essential role state legislators must play whether or not Congress chooses to act in reducing gun violence.”

Representatives from eight states — including some mostly gun-friendly areas like Virginia, Alabama, New Hampshire and Kansas — attended the Monday briefing. The only Republican present was Kansas State Representative Barbara Bollier, who is currently promoting background checks in her state as a matter of public health.

“This upcoming session I will support state legislation for background checks,” Bollier said in a statement. “It is imperative that this public health issue be addressed in Kansas.”

Bollier has called the newly formed gun control group “a tremendous opportunity for the people’s voice to be heard throughout the country.”

Of course, especially with regard to background checks for guns relating to public health, not everyone agrees with her positions.

Topeka area State Rep. Ken Corbet, a conservative gun rights supporter, said that her plans run afoul of residents’ Constitutional rights.

“I think if the Founding Fathers wanted that to be a public health issue, it would have said that in the 2nd Amendment. They did not bring that up,” he told local reporters.

While there is currently no public donor list available for the new 50 state gun control group, Kavanagh said that fundraising efforts are currently underway. But they may be facing an uphill battle considering National Institute for Money in State Politics figures showing that pro-2nd Amendment groups spent about 40 times as much as gun control groups in the 2011-2012 election cycle. All of that spending paid off, too. Fewer than 10 percent of gun control proposals introduced at the state level following 2012 shootings became law, according to the institute.

Recent polling data is also stacked against the gun control crowd, with Pew Research reporting this week that support for gun rights has risen markedly throughout the nation in the two years since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Fifty-two percent of Americans now say that protecting the rights afforded in the 2nd Amendment is more important than increased gun control, which is supported by 46 percent of likely voters. A healthy majority — 62 percent of respondents — also said that gun ownership makes people safer.

Still, ASLGVP believes it can advance a gun control agenda by focusing on efforts tailored to states and individual communities.

“ASLGVP members represent diverse perspectives based upon our own experiences and the needs of our respective districts and states, and do not seek to craft a one-size-fits-all agenda for all states,” the organization says on its website.

Lawmaker decries swift Congressional approval of ‘egregious’ surveillance measure

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) on Wednesday dubbed an intelligence authorization bill that sailed easily to passage in the House “one of the most egregious sections of law I’ve encountered during my time as a representative.” The libertarian-leaning lawmaker said that the legislation grants the government “unlimited access” to the private communications of all Americans.

Amash’s issue was with Sec. 309 of the fiscal year 2015 rendition of the Intelligence Authorization Act, a new which authorizes “the acquisition, retention, and dissemination” of nonpublic communications. The nonpublic communications mentioned include those to and from U.S. persons, according to the lawmaker.

In a letter urging his House colleagues to reject the Senate-approved bill in a recorded vote, Amash contends that the communications data collected without a court order could end up in the hands of law enforcement agencies conducting criminal investigations.

“To be clear, Sec. 309 provides the first statutory authority for the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of U.S. persons’ private communications obtained without legal process such as a court order or a subpoena,” he wrote. “The administration currently may conduct such surveillance under a claim of executive authority, such as E.O. 12333. However, Congress never has approved of using executive authority in that way to capture and use Americans’ private telephone records, electronic communications, or cloud data.”

Supporters of the Sec. 309 provision have argued that it is a surveillance reform because the measure includes language limiting the executive branch’s power to retain private communications data beyond five years. But Amash noted that the executive branch already follows a similar policy, effectively making the provision a way to provide a “novel statutory basis for the executive branch’s capture and use of Americans’ private communications.”

In other words, Sec. 309 institutionalizes the very actions it is supposedly intended to limit. The executive branch currently carries out the type of data collection in question under an executive order dating back to the Reagan administration. Congress’ acknowledgement of the tactics represents a troubling new stamp of legislative approval, Amash said.

The lawmaker also took issue with the way in which Sec. 309 made its way into the intelligence bill.

“The Senate inserted the provision into the intelligence reauthorization bill late [Tuesday] night,” he wrote. “That is no way for Congress to address the sensitive, private information of our constituents — especially when we are asked to expand our government’s surveillance powers.”

Despite Amash’s last-ditch effort to block the provision, House lawmakers followed the Senate’s lead and passed the 2015 bill in a voice vote, 325-100.

Amash was joined by 44 Republicans and 55 Democrats in voting “no” to the bill. For a full list of lawmakers who rejected the measure, visit Amash’s Facebook page.

Gun groups differ on support for government funding bill

Gun rights advocates are calling on lawmakers to force a government shutdown because of a $1 billion provision included in the trillion-dollar government funding package that would advance President Barack Obama’s gun control agenda.

“On behalf of one million law-abiding gun owners, we are asking you, in the strongest terms, to vote against the anti-gun omnibus appropriations bill,” Gun Owners of America (GOA) said in a statement to lawmakers. “As a matter of process, this gigantic bill was hatched in secret and sprung on the American people less than the 72 hours before consideration, which was promised by Republicans when they asked us to elect them.”

“This is precisely what you said you would not do if we gave your party control of Congress,” the group added.

GOA chairman and executive director Tim Macy said that a provision which adds $53 million to the government’s budget for “fight[ing] gun violence is an extrajudicial attack on gun rights. The additional funding brings the government’s total gun violence budget to $1.1 trillion.

“We all know this is a euphemism for gun control, and there is nothing which prevents the administration from using this money to support its anti-gun ‘executive action’ agenda,” he said, according to The Hill.

GOA lists the following additional complaints about the government funding bill:

* The bill rewards ATF for its illegal Fast and Furious program with an extra $22 million. Eric Holder has thumbed his nose at you with respect to any accountability for this outrageous abuse, and yet the drafters have no problem rewarding him for his contempt of (and for) Congress.

* The bill also provides $73 million for states like New York to impose gun bans when psychiatrists, as a result of its anti-gun “SAFE” Act, are forced by state law to report their patients, based on subjective determinations with no real due process. Tens of thousands of people may experience unconstitutional gun bans in New York alone, thanks to this bill.

* Finally, the bill provides $3 million to encourage Americans to lock up their safety, so that their guns will not be available in connection with a burglary or armed home invasion.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association has supported the spending bill because of a provision that protects hunters’ rights to use traditional lead ammunition.

“For years, radical animal rights and environmental advocates have used all the tools at their disposal, including litigation, to attempt to ban lead ammunition,” the group wrote to house Speaker John Boehner. “A ban on traditional ammunition would affect hunters, sportsmen, law enforcement, military and target shooters — whether or not they hunt. There are currently no comparable alternatives to lead ammunition in terms of cost, ballistics and availability. This bill would prevent a traditional ammunition ban and protect not just hunters, but millions of American gun owners.”

Rand Paul has Mitch McConnell’s support for presidency

If Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) decides to run for president in 2016, he’ll have fellow Kentucky Republican lawmaker Mitch McConnell’s support.

McConnell told CNN’s Dana Bash on Monday that he will “almost certainly” be supporting the Paul for president campaign at some point, but not in early primary states.

“I’m going to be helpful to him in any way I can be,” he said. “But I’m not going to be tromping around in New Hampshire and Iowa, I can tell you that.”

McConnell and Paul got off to a rough start back in 2010 due to many of the junior senator’s anti-establishment leanings, but they have since improved their relationship in Congress.

“I’m a big fan of his,” McConnell said. “I mean we started off on opposite paths, but we’ve become great allies. … I think he’s a very, very smart, capable guy.”

Meanwhile, Paul told a Kentucky ABC affiliate this week that he’ll welcome back former staffer Jesse Benton, who had worked for Ron Paul and resigned from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) re-election campaign in August following a political scandal involving the elder Paul.

“I think Jesse [Benton] is honest, he’s good at politics and I don’t think he’s done anything wrong,” Paul said.

“Jesse is married to my niece and was a big help in the Kentucky election here in 2010 and a big help for Sen. McConnell,” Paul also said. “He’ll help us.”

Paul didn’t indicate what role Benton might play, as the Kentucky Republican will be running for Senate re-election and, likely, for the presidency.

“That decision isn’t made yet,” Paul said, “but we are doing things to be prepared if it were to happen.”

“There’s still uncertainty and time to sort of make final decisions over the next few months.”

The lawmaker is expected to announce whether he’ll run for president this spring.

Sessions continues criticism of Obama’s ‘stunning’ immigration action

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has continued his vocal criticism of President Barack Obama’s immigration actions this week, saying the “breathtaking,” lawless executive amnesty goes beyond immigration by threatening to delegitimize the country’s institutions.

Responding to news that Obama never actually signed an executive order to carry out the massive immigration actions announced on Nov. 20, Sessions said the president was going out of his way to make it difficult for lawmakers to undo the actions.

“I guess they just whispered in the ear of (DHS Director) Jeh Johnson over at Homeland Security, ‘Just put out a memo. That way we don’t have to enforce the law,’” Sessions said at a Judicial Watch event.

The senator also noted that without an official order to reference, “We don’t even have a really significant, direct, legal direction that we can ascertain, precisely what the president is doing. It’s a stunning event in my view.”

Sessions contends that Obama has effectively created an “alternative immigration system” despite Obama’s own assertions that the president of the United States “is not empowered to do that.”

Sessions also warned that Obama’s extrajudicial immigration maneuvers are going to be costly for the nation’s taxpayers.

The lawmaker noted that illegal immigrants will be eligible for a $2,600 Earned Income Tax Credit in addition to a possible $1,000 per child credit once are granted Social Security numbers under Obama’s plan. The credits could net illegal immigrants as much as $5,000 in federal tax money.

Sessions also repeated calls for House lawmakers to include a provision in the anticipated omnibus spending bill to block Obama’s executive amnesty, a measure that has been blocked so far by House leaders.

Former Common Core supporter drafts bill against the standards

Draft legislation created by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) would make it easier for U.S. states to opt out of the Common Core by prohibiting the federal government from “mandating, incentivizing or coercing” states to adopt the education standards.

Vitter’s “Local Control of Education Act” would disallow federal officials the ability to “incentivize a State, local educational agency, or school to adopt any specific instructional content, academic standard, assessment, curriculum, commonality of standards or assessments, or program of instruction… which shall include providing any priority, preference, or special consideration during the application process based on any specific content, standard, assessment, curriculum, commonality, or program.”

The federal government has set aside some $4.35 billion in grants and waivers to incentivize Common Core adoption through its Race to the Top program.

Vitter had previously supported the education standards, but changed his position last week in an email to supporters.

“After listening to literally thousands of parents, teachers, and others,” he wrote, “I don’t believe that we can achieve that Louisiana control, buy-in and success I’m committed to if we stay in Common Core.”

Vitter said that his constituents’ reasonable concerns about the threat of a federal takeover of all aspects of education were at the heart of his decision.

The lawmakers, a likely 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial candidate, also said that he would lead a charge to draft Louisiana-specific education standards.

“I’ve fought tooth and nail for local control of education and against the enormous growth of federal power under President Obama,” Vitter recently told The Daily Signal.

Current Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, similarly changed his position on Common Core, even issuing executive orders against the standards and suing his education secretary.

Retired ABC News journalist recalls Obama’s profane tirades against press

Ann Compton, a retired ABC News journalist, recalled President Barack Obama launching into profanity-laced tirades against the press in closed meetings and called his “the most opaque” administration of “any I have covered.”

Compton, who retired from a 40-year career over the summer, noted a number of steps the Obama administration has taken over the years to block out the press.

“I was a strong voice for complaining that this particular administration has been more opaque than any I have covered about what the President does in the Oval Office every day,” Compton told C-Span’s Brian Lamb.

“He is far less accessible on photo ops with meetings. Even some meetings on the record, meeting in the Roosevelt room with financial leaders… from Wall Street or on issues with environmental groups, or… public opinion leaders,” she continued. “I think most presidents have been far more forthcoming than the second Obama term, in terms of what the President is doing every day and we almost never get photo ops.”

And when the president isn’t doing what he can to avoid the press, according to Compton, he’s chewing journalists out in off-the-record meetings.

“I have seen in the last year Barack Obama really angry twice. Both were off-the-record times,” she said.

“One, profanity-laced where he thought the press was making too much of scandals that he did not think were scandals,” she continued. “Another where he took us to task for not understanding the limits he has with foreign policy and the way he’s dealing with the Middle East and Iraq and Afghanistan.”

When asked by Lamb if the president had a point, Compton replied, “From his point of view, he may. But we cover what we are allowed to cover. And when policy decisions and presidents are inaccessible and don’t take questions from the press on a regular basis, I think… they reap what they sow.”

Watch the full interview here.

Survey: The Internet makes us smarter

If you believe your online reading habits are making you better informed, you’re not alone. More than 7 in 10 Americans believe that the Internet is making average people better informed about the world around them.

That’s according to a Pew Research poll released Monday which gauged how average people use the Internet and how they feel about today’s always-connected culture.

Pew previously reported that a growing number of Americans are eschewing traditional print and network news, shifting instead to Internet-based reporting. Its latest news survey indicates that Americans feel that they’re benefiting from this shift.

Seventy-five percent of respondents reported that visiting news websites on a daily basis has increased their knowledge of national news in recent years. Americans reported similar increases in international news awareness as well.

But technology is benefitting Americans in more ways than news awareness. The recent Pew report indicates that Internet users feel their time online makes it easier for them to learn a broad range of new things, with 85 percent saying that the Internet and cellphones have improved their ability to learn.

Eighty-one percent of respondents also reported that cellphones and the Internet have helped them make better choices in products and services than five years ago.

In addition, 72 percent say that sharing creative ideas is easier than ever.

Most importantly, however, is that a majority of Americans are comfortable with the vast amount of information at their fingertips and don’t feel overloaded with information. Seventy-two percent of respondents said they like having so much available information, compared to 26 percent who said they feel overloaded.

Sessions: Obama plans direct cash payments for illegals

Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions continued his criticism of President Obama’s immigration actions Friday, taking the president to task for the White House admission that illegal immigrants will receive tax credits under the plan.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama was working to turn illegal immigrants into U.S. taxpayers.

“That does mean that they’re going to be filing their taxes on a regular basis and that does mean that if they qualify for the child tax credit, for example, as a taxpayer that would be something that they would benefit from,” he said.

Sessions told National Review that the tax benefits are proof that the Obama administration plans to further ignore the nation’s laws.

“He has now launched a new $100 million facility and staffing operation to provide illegal immigrants with the exact benefits rejected by Congress — including work permits, Social Security and Medicare,” Sessions said. “These credits will cost American taxpayers billions every year and represent an enormous cash transfer from American workers to lower-wage illegal workers. These tax credits are not refunds, but a direct cash payment from the Treasury to illegal immigrants — at a time when the Treasury is running huge deficits.”

Sessions has also recently criticized the Department of Homeland Security for “misconduct on a gross scale” for failing to deport illegal immigrants.

“Despite a massive rush on the border, deportations have continued their steady and dramatic decline. Interior deportations have fallen 23 percent since last year alone, and have been halved since 2011…,” Sessions said Friday.

He continued, “The effective result of the Administration’s non-enforcement policy is that anyone in the world who manages to get into the interior of the United States — by any means, including overstaying a visa — is free to live, work, and claim benefits in the United States at Americans’ expense. Again: this is the result of lawless orders issued by this Administration.”

Watch: Even the State Department thinks its talking points are ridiculous

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was caught on a hot mic calling her talking points “ridiculous,” following a tense exchange with reporters over the U.S. non-position on the recent acquittal of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Asked for reaction to the court’s decision to drop charges against Mubarak, Psaki offered this gobbledygook: “Generally, we continue to believe that upholding impartial standards of accountability will advance the political consensus on which Egypt’s long-term stability and economic growth depends. But beyond that, I would refer you to the Egyptian government.”

Reporters in the room quickly revolted, saying that her answer meant nothing.

“It means that in general we believe that impartial standards and the justice system should work as planned,” Psaki attempted to defend her statement. “But I don’t have any specific comments…”

The Associated Press’ Matt Lee later pushed back, “Can you… push your people a little harder? Because… you call for accountability and transparency all the time from any number of governments, and so if… no one is being held accountable for what happened it would seem to me that you would have a problem with that.”

Psaki continued to deflect, saying that she’d provide more information if it became available.

“What you said, says nothing,” Lee pressed. “It’s like saying, ‘well we support the right of people to breathe. That’s great, but if you can’t breathe…”

Psaki didn’t exactly disagree, but we only know that because she forgot to turn off her mic as she hurriedly left the press conference.

“That Egypt line is ridiculous,” she said.

Small-business owners slowly regaining economic confidence

Small-business owners in the U.S are becoming increasingly optimistic about the state of the economy, according to the most recent rendition of the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index. But while small-business optimism is higher than it has been since 2008, it’s still well below pre-recession levels.

The small-business index score increased to 58 last month, up from 49 in July, revealed the survey of small-business owners. The last time the index was this high was when it reached 83 in 2008.

“This increase shows that small-business owners are reacting positively to the same rising economic tides that have lifted overall economic confidence in the U.S. and optimism about jobs,” Gallup said of the numbers.

For contrast, the business index reached its all-time high of 114 in 2006. While the U.S. economy was beginning to slow after a couple years of economic confidence at the time, Americans had not yet been hit with recession-level economic stagnation. The record low was recorded in the third quarter of 2010 when the index dropped to -28. That’s about the time politicians began attempting to shift the narrative to recovery after prolonged economic recession even though many Americans continued to struggle as much as they had at the height of the economic unease.

The index has risen steadily over the past two years, with owners reporting gradual improvements in their abilities to hire new employees and make business investments.

Twenty-six percent of business owners currently say they plan to expand their staffs in the next 12 months, which is on par with hiring projections recorded in the index in 2006. That’s good news considering that small businesses provide a majority of jobs in the U.S. and have generated about 65 percent of net new jobs since 1995.

More good news is that only 11 percent of small-business owners said they expect their financial situation to deteriorate to “poor” or “very poor” in the coming year. Meanwhile, 71 percent report that they expect to be in “very good” or “somewhat good” economic shape for the next 12 months. Financial expectations haven’t been this good among small-business owners since 2007.

With improving financial expectations half of the small-business owners polled said they plan to make capital investments in the coming year. That’s up from 43 percent in 2013 and 41 percent in 2012.