In the USA....United Surveillance AmericaAl-Qaida faction in Syria contemplating US attack, intelligence officials warn
Senate hears Nusra Front has 'aspirations for attacks on the homeland' amid concern over civil war's terrorism implications
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 29 January 2014 20.17 GMT
Intelligence officials have claimed that a faction linked to al-Qaida in Syria has a desire to launch a domestic attack on the US, an assertion that underscored the growing importance of the Syrian civil war to global terrorism.
The Nusra Front, one of the jihadist factions in Syria that aligns itself with al-Qaida, “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland”, James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, told the Senate intelligence committee on Wednesday.
Clapper pointed to the deterioration of Syria during three years of violence – a situation he compared to the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) in Pakistan that became a haven after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan for the core leadership of al-Qaida.
“What’s going on there, may be in some respects a new FATA force ... and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very worrisome,” Clapper said.
Clapper did not discuss the capabilities of the Nusra Front, which pledged loyalty to al-Qaida in April, nor another al-Qaida-centric organization in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has recently emerged as a rival to Nusra. Neither faction has yet shown interest in attacks on the US, focusing their violence on the Bashar al-Assad regime, rival Syrian rebels, and neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.
But Clapper estimated there were more than 7,000 foreigners fighting in the Syrian carnage, coming from 50 countries, “many of them from Europe and the Mideast”. Clapper stopped short of warning that Americans were a significant component of Syrian jihadist groups, the subject of considerable speculation as Syria’s civil war has dragged on.
Clapper said approximately 26,000 Syrian combatants could be classified as “extremists”, out of an estimated 75,000 to 110,000 armed opponents of Assad. An anonymous Israeli intelligence officer recently estimated to the Associated Press that al-Qaida’s allies in Syria topped 30,000.
US intelligence had picked up indications of “training complexes” within Syria, Clapper said, “to train people to go back to their countries and conduct terrorist acts, so this is a huge concern”.
Yet Clapper, in his prepared testimony for the committee, listed cyber threats and counter-intelligence before focusing on terrorism. Among those threats were leaks from “trusted insiders with the intent to do harm”, an apparent reference to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, whom Clapper excoriated during the hearing.
Al-Qaida’s “locus for operational planning” has dispersed around the world, Clapper said, with “some five different franchises at least in 12 countries” of particular concern, including in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and Syria.
That dispersal is in keeping with a years-long trend in al-Qaida toward decentralization. An academic debate exists among counter-terrorism analysts concerning the control and relevance of the “core al-Qaida”, based in Pakistan, which Clapper called the “ideological center” of the terrorist organization.
Despite the focus on Syria, Clapper said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based affiliate that twice attempted unsuccessfully to bomb US aircraft in 2009 and 2010, remains the franchise with the strongest interest in attacking the US, with many of the others principally interested in more localized assaults and contests for power.
“Of all the franchises, that’s the one that poses the most immediate threat for a potential attack on the homeland,” Clapper said. “The probability of an attack now, compared to 2001 is, at least to me, is a very hard question to answer, principally because this very dispersion and diffusion of threat.”
Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said it was difficult for the US intelligence agencies – which had a 2013 budget of $67.6bn after congressionally imposed restrictions, according to officially declassified figures – to provide tactical warning of a terrorist attack domestically.
“The nature of the threat has become significantly more geographically spread out, and that challenges the community in collecting the kinds of information that would provide that kind of tactical warning,” Olsen said.
Attacks like the September assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall “using small arms, a small number of individuals, puts a great deal of pressure on us to provide the kind of tactical warning that would save lives under those circumstances”, Olsen said.
*************Lessons From SOTU: Democrats Are Mainstream, Republicans Fringe
By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 11:10 EST
John Boehner can’t exert any control over his party.
Last night’s State of the Union was pretty good. I realize a lot of people felt it was “meh”, but I liked the fact that it wasn’t dilly-dallying and President Obama laid forth a bunch of goals for himself that are achievable. And, of course, a bunch of goals for Congress that are unachievable because House Republicans are a bunch of layabouts whose sole interests are banning abortion and hoping that the one millionth time they repeal the ACA will be the one that sticks. That’s an important thing to highlight. The public needs to understand that Republicans are lazy and worthless and that they’re actually kind of proud of it.
I think the President’s points all felt very obvious and mainstream for two major reasons: 1) The country has shifted left on economic issues in recent years, largely due to the recession. That’s no big surprise, and a similar thing happened during the Great Depression. Nothing like watching the middle class wither away and economic insecurity become the mainstream for people to stop spitting on poor people, as they are in very real danger of becoming poor people themselves. It’s a real life version of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. 2) The Republicans have become so extremist that even the most ordinary, mainstream ideas—such as the idea that a person who works full-time should not live in poverty—have become strongly identified as partisan ideas. As Brian Beutler pointed out in Salon:
Intentionally or otherwise, Obama’s speech was a reminder to Democrats that the storm clouds of Obamacare implementation have obscured their view of the popular platform the party ran on so confidently in 2012. That there are a series of issues that animate Democratic constituencies on the docket, both ahead of 2014 and beyond, and all of them are political and substantive winners for the party.
All the Republicans can do, really, is try to conceal what they really stand for. There was a lot of that going on last night, with them disingenuously applauding things like pay equity and the right to vote, even though Republicans have been pretty active in fighting both, especially the latter. Not that there’s anything new about the Republican strategy to win elections by simply lying about where you stand, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly untenable for them as their base, hyped up by their internet-enabled ability to express themselves, are increasingly demanding more public right wing posturing to go along with the right wing policy.
You saw that problem on full display with the many and varied “responses” that were given. The official one, by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, was mostly fluff with the only serious aspect being her signaling that Republicans fully intend to continue with their single-minded obsession with rolling back reproductive rights. But even that was in coded language, bland platitudes about how much she loves life that are scripted so as to imply that Republicans have nothing more serious in mind than congratulating mothers for being awesome, instead of the real plan to force childbirth on the unwilling. The fact that other Republicans felt that wasn’t enough was telling. They can’t help but undermine themselves. Pandering to the right means giving up votes, but at a certain point, they clearly don’t care anymore.
*************President’s State of the Union Speech Strikes Most of the Chords Dems Were Waiting For
By: Dennis S
Wednesday, January, 29th, 2014, 6:21 pm
I watched President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night. I was one of the 15% who did in my area of South Carolina. That is if you believe the Tuesday local paper poll question responses. Readers were asked “Will you watch President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night?” As I wrote, 15% allowed as to how they would. That leaves 85% with more important things to watch. While the president was speaking, viewers had the option of the latest vapid mind candy on ‘E’, something about rich kids, or Bravo’s the “Shahs of Sunset” a show of contrived stereotypes that couldn’t be more insulting to Islam.
How about diving deeper into the cable pool for DSC’s “Moonshiners” or the oddest show on all of television, “Dance Moms” on Lifetime. Yep, plenty of fare infinitely more important that the present and future of America.
Then there was the predicted local reaction to this truly inspiring speech. Some cartoon, ‘er cartoonist named Summers, who plies his ink-stink from the Orlando Sentinel and let’s the Tribune Content Agency spread it throughout media land, drew a first panel showing the president at the SOTU podium stating “I’m willing to work together.” The second panel has him holding out a pen. He asks, “Right?” as the pen responds “RIGHT!” The reference is obviously to Barack Obama finally taking Executive Order leadership into his hands after years of a kindergarten Congress refusing to entertain any Democratic initiatives. Of course, at least 85% of the local population will nod their heads in enthusiastic affirmation of the message of the cartoon since they know nothing of a speech they didn’t bother to listen to.
The speech was what I would term an intellectual stem-winder. Obama is not an orator in the classic sense of MLK or Bill Clinton or the late Congresswoman and civil rights leader, Barbara Jordan. Even nearly four decades after the fact of her 1976 Democratic Convention Keynote Speech, Representative Jordan’s oration is politically iconic. You can find it all over YouTube.
As for the president, he delivers a different kind of passion; not blood boiling, but mind roiling. Barack Obama stimulates contemplation and deliberation. He’s a craftsman and modulator. He makes few, if any, mistakes. You know by the tenor of his voice when he’s serious and he commands your attention. He was in full command of his speech faculties Tuesday night.
What were these words that were so well crafted? The president started off on a note of accomplishment, steering through the entrepreneur and professions of autoworker, farmer and doctor to highlight recent achievements. He continued with positive facts and figures emerging from his administration in recent months. The overarching message; things are improving and that “The United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.”
He added some pithy and not so subtle barbs aimed at the right-wing House. One of my favorites was, “But the budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crisis.” Fist bump, speechwriters.
Jobs, wages, including an escalating minimum wage and the Middle-class took up a fair amount of the first 20 minutes or so, as well they should have. Barack bragged on some of Michelle’s projects. Funny, The National Enquirer barely had them speaking according to the front-page I saw checking out at the grocery store the other day. It was at this point that Obama made his first mention of veterans in lauding his wife’s and Jill Bidens co-venture called “The Joining Forces” alliance that asks employers to train and hire 400,000 veterans and their wives.
It’s a wonderful program and the least we can do for our veterans, especially those military victims of Iraq, a war forced on tens of thousands of young people in their prime, who ended up in Iraq so the likes of Dick Cheney, his oil buddies, bankers and war industry profiteers could build another wing onto their 15,000 square foot houses and add multiple millions to their bottom lines.
Thank the Good Lord that for every opportunistic numbskull, there’s a genuine, courageous and honest hero. Tuesday night that hero was somebody most of America had never heard of. He was a Ranger, Army Sergeant First Class, Corey Remsburg. Sgt. Remsburg had deployed to Afghanistan 10 (TEN) times. A roadside bomb left him in a coma for months with shrapnel in his brain. The president told of dozens of surgeries and hours of grueling rehab for Remsburg. He remains blind in one eye and has problems with his left side.
The most striking characteristic I noticed about the Sergeant was that while others clapped when particularly approving of a presidential statement, Corey pounded his chest in Tarzan fashion with the flat palm of his right hand to show his agreement. Clapping is one of the first things humans do as babies. This adult male can’t do what babies can do.
I love Corey Remsburg for his sacrifice and every serviceman and woman like him, whether severely injured or untouched. Only in the most extreme of threatening circumstances should we send any fellow American in harm’s way. Initially, Afghanistan seemed legit. Osama bin Laden was hiding out there as were other identified terrorists. But bin Laden is now dead. The Taliban will never be totally exterminated and graft and poppies rule the day, starting at the very top. There’s no reason to sacrifice even one more Corey Remsburg to our national ego and Halliburton.
Overall, Obama spent a lot of time defending America’s foreign policy. And things are getting better. I would have liked to have heard more about women’s issues, though equal pay for equal work was a winner, education and immigration and a word or two about Keystone. Showing his continued fear of the NRA, he gave over a single paragraph to gun violence. He at least mentioned Sandy Hook. Right-wing propaganda has made the sacrifice of 20 children and 6 adults to our insane gun culture an afterthought virtually forgotten as an A rating from the NRA means more to politicians than the lives of little children. That’s the 100% truth. For shame!
I like the new retirement savings idea articulated last night. Treasury savings bonds until a certain amount is saved, then on to IRAs. Works for me. The president also defended voter rights and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He showed where the health insurance market was working and challenged the snickering Republicans in attendance to show the nation if they’ve got something better. They won’t because they don’t. I liked his reference to the ridiculous “40-something” anti-ACA votes in the House.
IMHO, the speech rates an “A.” Now, let’s follow the lead of Sgt. Remsburg. Like the extraordinary man he is, Corey still wants to serve, “My recovery has not been easy,” he says. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.
So I’ll tell you what, Republicans, you take your narrow-minded cretins like Phil Robertson, we Democrats will welcome the Corey Remsburgs into the fold and flip the red state legislatures and the House of Representatives.
*************President Obama Hard At Work Providing Retirement Security For Working Americans
By: Justin Baragona
Wednesday, January, 29th, 2014, 4:19 pm
On Wednesday, President Obama sent out a memorandum directing the Treasury Department to develop a new retirement savings security for working Americans. The development of the new security is to be finalized by the end of this year so that workers can start contributing into the accounts by 2015. The President also directed Treasury to work with employers and have a pilot program in place within 90 days.
In essence, the President realizes that many Americans are concerned about what will be available to them when they retire. Currently, only about half of working Americans have access to 401(k)s or other employer-sponsored retirement accounts. The other half then need to find other means of putting money aside towards their retirement or rely entirely on Social Security. One option out there is an Individual Retirement Account, or IRA.
However, less than 10% of all workers voluntarily contribute into an IRA. However, if a worker is automatically enrolled in a 401(k) plan through work and can have their contributions deducted directly from their paycheck, the participation rate is extremely high. In fact, around 90% of those workers contribute directly into their retirement accounts. Therefore, the President figured that it would be a great idea for more working Americans to have the opportunity to invest into their retirement savings directly from their pay.
The proposal is more or less an IRA that will have the money directly deposited from an employee’s paycheck. It is not requiring employers that do not currently offer sponsored retirement savings accounts to contribute on their end. Merely, that the employer allow the employee to enroll in this savings account and allow for automatic deductions from the employee’s pay. Since participation and contributions into workers’ retirement accounts is much greater when automatic enrollment and payroll deduction is available, this plan should allow more Americans to save a lot more money for their golden years.
On top of that. the President has also directed Treasury to make sure that this new retirement savings security has safeguards built in to protect the contributor. One, the principal amount in the account shall stay protected. Therefore, while it will accrue interest over time due to investments, it won’t be subjected to huge losses due to volatility in the stock markets. The principal amount of a worker’s contributions will stay protected even during rough patches in the financial markets.
Second, unlike current IRAs, this security will allow for a low starting deposit and small contributions, as well as the ability to easily access the funds in cases of emergency. In essence, this is to help low-income workers put aside a little bit of money every paycheck to get a start on saving for the future. At the same time, they can have the peace of mind knowing that this money is available to them at anytime.
As we have seen so far in 2014, and what was hammered home in Tuesday night’s State of the Union, the President is pursuing an aggressive strategy to address the needs and concerns of the working and middle class. Measures such as this one shows just how serious he really is.
**************President Obama Takes Down Walmart By Giving A Speech at Costco
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, January, 29th, 2014, 3:13 pm
President took a big swipe at Walmart today without ever mentioning them by name. By speaking about everything that Costco is, President Obama pointed out what Walmart isn’t.
The president said,
A hundred years ago, Henry Ford started Ford Motor Company. Model T — you remember all that? Henry Ford realized he could sell more cars if his workers made enough money to buy the cars. He had started this — factories and mass production and all that, but then he realized, if my workers aren’t getting paid, they won’t be able to buy the cars. And then I can’t make a profit and reinvest to hire more workers. But if I pay my workers a good wage, they can buy my product, I make more cars. Ultimately, I’ll make more money, they’ve got more money in their pockets — so it’s a win-win for everybody.
And leaders today, business leaders today, some of them understand this same concept. Costco’s CEO, Craig Jelinek, he understands this. He feels the same way. He knows that Costco is going to do better, all our businesses do better when customers have more money to spend. And listen, Craig is a wonderful guy, but he’s not in this for philanthropy. He’s a businessman. He’s looking at the bottom line. But he sees that if he’s doing right by Costco’s workers, then they can buy that 80-inch TV, too. Right?
Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as a smart way to boost productivity and to reduce turnover. So entry-level employees here — stock associates, cashiers — start out at $11.50 an hour. Start at $11.50.
The average hourly wage is more than $20, not including overtime or benefits. And Costco’s commitment to fairness doesn’t stop at the checkout counter; it extends down the supply chain, including to many of the farmworkers who grow the product — the produce that you sell. (Applause.)
Now, what this means is that that Costco has some of the lowest employee turnover in your industry. So you’re not constantly retraining folks because they quit. You got people like Teressa who has been here 27 years — because it’s a company that’s looking out for workers.
And I got to tell you, when I walk around, just — I had a little tour of the produce section, the bakery — you could just tell people feel good about their job and they feel good about the company, and you have a good atmosphere, and the managers and people all take pride in what you do.
Now, folks who work at Costco understand that, but there are a lot of Americans who don’t work somewhere like Costco, and they’re working for wages that don’t go as far as they once did. Today, the minimum wage — the federal minimum wage doesn’t even go as far as it did back in the 1950s. And as the cost of living goes up, the value of the minimum wage goes down over time. Just last year alone, workers earning the minimum wage basically got the equivalent of a $200 pay cut because the minimum wage stayed the same but costs of everything else are going up.
I don’t need to tell you this. You go shopping. So you’re like, mm-hmm. For a typical minimum-wage worker, that’s a month’s worth of groceries. It’s two months of electricity. It’s a big deal to a lot of families.
Peter Deier, an E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, Occidental College, explained why President Obama chose Costco as the venue for his speech, “Why Costco and not Walmart, which is a much bigger and better-known discount retailer? The answer is that Costco’s labor practices help reduce income inequality while Walmart’s labor practices widen it. Yes, Walmart is better-known, but what it’s known for is low wages and abusive labor practices….When Americans think of the phrase “working poor,” they think of Walmart. Many of its employees make so little that they are eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. America’s taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart’s poverty-wage labor practices to the tune of billions of dollars. The company’s low-wage business model contributes to its stocking problems, the low customer service ratings, and the retailer’s current decline in sales. Not only do Costco workers earn much more than their Walmart counterparts, but Costco’s CEO makes considerably less than Walmart’s CEO. So while Costco helps narrow the gap between the rich and the rest, Walmart widens it.”
President Obama was sending a not so subtle message to the corporate giant that is most responsible for income inequality in this country. The point of the president’s speech at Costco was that it is more than possible for a company to both pay a living wage and be profitable.
Costco proves both the Republican Party and Walmart wrong. A company can pay its employees well and be successful. Republicans always frame any proposed increase in the minimum wage as a choice between paying employees well and jobs. Even though research shows that increasing the minimum wage does not cause employers to layoff workers, Republicans still stick to this tired old talking point.
By highlighting what Costco does right, Obama was taking a shot at Walmart and all of the other retail and service industry giants who oppose raising the minimum wage. Costco should be the norm, not the exception. President Obama’s speech was a not so subtle reminder to the country of the damage that Walmart is doing to us all.
**************Sarah Palin Disrespects President Obama with Jealous, Racist SOTU Rant
By: Sarah Jones
January, 29th, 2014, 12:37 pm
Sarah Palin was very busy last night. Too busy and important to watch the State of the Union, but she did catch it on her “truck radio” and she’s very concerned about that man in the White House. He’s arrogant and dangerously full of hubris. He dared to act like a President and use presidential powers. Something must be done!
She warned her flock on Facebook today, “We the People” don’t have to be “We the Sheeple” and just get shepherded towards a fundamental transformation that’s against America’s will.” To remedy this horrible, big government intrusion, she says we can elect more Republicans this November. Because if anyone knows how to do nothing while getting paid a lot of money for it and using taxpayer funded health insurance, it’s the GOP.
Yes, Ms. Palin did not watch “the fantasy declaration of ‘utopia’s-on-its-way’”, which is good, because I’m beginning to suspect that she allergic to hope and optimism, so certainly utopia is out.
Listening on her truck radio, she heard what she “forebodingly anticipated.” She was alarmed by the President’s hubris, “But the extreme hubris and naïveté that emanated from that speech was something new and alarming.” It’s as if he is President or something. Uppity Obama.
Palin cited Ronald Reagan and claimed that Obama’s speech “confirms we need rescuing from government like never before.” Who’s gonna rescue us from the “government”? Governmental employees like Republicans. Don’t try to work this out in your head. It works on a bumper sticker and that’s all that matters.
Apparently, Ms. Palin, who had health insurance via her husband’s union at one point and certainly as a governor, even if she did quit, lost her health insurance because of affordable health insurance being made available to everyone else. I think you know who wins in this case, and it’s not you. “In an attempt to “fix” our health care system, government has taken away our health insurance and forced us to buy worse plans we don’t want and can’t afford.”
She worried about the deficit but never mentioned the 24 billion dollars her tea party doppelgänger Republican Senator Ted Cruz cost the country with his shutdown over nothing. And while she hates green energy (she was the most socialist governor in America by the way – she pushed for oil companies to pay citizens for the privilege of using their land), nothing gets her down like amnesty. Obama amnesty.
Speaking of which, while claiming to be concerned with job creation for American workers, our government is trying to ram through amnesty, which will result in a flood of foreign workers competing with Americans for the few jobs there are.
Fear! I tell you fear! They’re coming for your stuff! VOTE GOP in 2014 because they already have your stuff and they want to keep it. They don’t want you getting a piece of the pie before some “foreign worker” comes in to snatch it from you, so it’s best if you just don’t have health insurance at all, and it’s best if Republicans keep obstructing job bills.
Palin is very hot under the collar about Obama’s “arrogance” and “hubris”, which she mentioned yet again in her clearly not over her 2008 defeat tome, “Between the hubris of an executive branch governing by fiat, to the arrogance of believing it can spy on citizens’ communications and unleash the IRS to harass people who happen to disagree with the President, it’s now more important than ever for us to press in and pay attention.”
Yes, pay attention! The IRS investigated liberals and conservatives, but if we ignore the facts, we can feel really scared and sorry for ourselves, which is always a bonus in Palin world. This is leading up to an implied request for money. Are you scared enough yet? (Please don’t ask about Republicans wanting the IRS to investigate rape victims, because we are on a one-way ticket to utopia here and reality does not apply.)
Why? Because we’re obviously on a dangerous path, but “We the People” don’t have to be “We the Sheeple” and just get shepherded towards a fundamental transformation that’s against America’s will.
You are being manipulated by evil, “alarmingly” “dangerous” Obama. Glenn Beck, is that you?
Understand the way words are manipulated by politicians who practice to deceive, so that we can DO something about it. For instance, proving he’s immune to irony, the President used the phrase “fairness and equality under the law” at the end of last night’s address. This is the same President who has been arbitrarily amending his signature legislation, Obamacare, practically every other day to give breaks to his cronies and leave the rest of us without “connections” out in the cold. I guess some of us are less fair and equal under Obama’s laws.
Oh, God yes, if anyone is without connections, it’s Sarah Palin and her new TV show, her Fox gig, her PAC, and her standing as a person of importance in the Republican Party in spite of having quit on Alaska mid term in order to pursue reality TV appearances and make some cold hard cash. Sparkly flags and God, please donate.
The last thing we need is “big government”, so send Republicans to DC:
The last thing we need right now is more “help” from big government. In this mid-term year, we need to send new leadership to D.C. to get government back on our side and off our aching backs.
Thankfully, November is just around the corner.
Now you know what to do. There’s a nice little button going to SarahPAC at the top of the page. Donate to her so she can keep the cash in her PAC, which allows her to send Republicans to DC because it frees her up to write things like this on Facebook.
Arrogant Obama needs to stop acting like he was elected, stop using that executive power, which he uses much less than Bush, but Bush was President so… Obama needs to stop being so “arrogant” by acting like a president. It burns. The jealousy is palpable.
Many say Sarah Palin is a has-been and irrelevant, but she perfectly embodies the problems of the modern day GOP. She is all hot rage and vague fear tactics, lots of accusations steeped in not so veiled southern strategy and no solutions, and most troubling of all, there is zero consistency in the policy positions. You can’t fear monger about big government while you try to use the IRS to harass rape victims. Sarah Palin is all bitter Obama hate and nothing else. Just like the entire modern day Republican Party.
Go ahead, laugh, because ultimately, this is what is behind every Republican politician right now. They are all Sarah Palin, some of them just manage to hide it better. They are the party of spoiled children who do nothing but point fingers at others and call names. That is their only contribution, and for that, they expect to be paid by you.
***************How Pressure Mounted for Development in Hoboken
By PATRICK McGEEHAN and CHARLES V BAGLI
JAN. 29, 2014
HOBOKEN, N.J. — Last May 8, a severe rainstorm left the streets of this city flooded once again, causing the mayor, Dawn Zimmer, to recall the inundation from Hurricane Sandy.
So she dashed off a letter to Gov. Chris Christie, imploring him to help with Hoboken’s “ongoing flooding emergency,” and attached photos of cars in water up to their hoods. She was due to meet the next day with officials of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, when she hoped to talk about protecting Hoboken from the next catastrophic deluge to come.
But according to newly obtained emails sent among the participants, the first topic of discussion on the agenda was “review of concepts for flood control measures at Rockefeller property,” a reference to a billion-dollar office complex proposed at the north end of town. The developer, the Rockefeller Group, which had long been trying to gain approval from local officials, sent two executives, two lobbyists and an engineer to the meeting.
Mayor Zimmer, through a spokesman, said on Wednesday that she went to the meeting but refused to discuss the project, feeling it was premature to do so.
The next day, the mayor has said, she received a call telling her that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno would visit Hoboken the following Monday. Ms. Zimmer, a Democrat, has alleged that during that visit, while in the parking lot of a Shop-Rite supermarket, Ms. Guadagno, like the governor a Republican, told her that the Rockefeller project was important to Mr. Christie and that the mayor needed to “move forward” with it if she wanted Hoboken to receive the flood protection money being distributed in the wake of the hurricane.
The Christie administration has denied ever linking the Rockefeller project to hurricane relief, an accusation that is now under federal investigation.
But whatever the outcome of the inquiries, the emails and interviews make clear that the development-wary mayor was coming under increasing and repeated pressure from politically connected lawyers working for Rockefeller Group and from the Christie administration.
The company had laid out about $100 million to buy up property in a forsaken section of town littered with bus lots and long-dormant factories, property that was zoned for low-slung industrial buildings but blessed with a stunning view of Manhattan. Though the plans have never been made public, in discussions with local officials they described a project that would dwarf anything that Hoboken had ever seen.
Following a well-worn playbook, they hired lawyers and lobbyists with connections to the leadership of both parties. State officials, beginning with the administration of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, have come through for the company with money and support. Just last June, the state’s mass transit agency reached a nonbinding agreement with the company for the construction of a light rail station near its property.
Rockefeller Group had every reason to expect that local officials would come through, too. For years, Hoboken was known as development-friendly, a financially stressed city happy to move beyond the old image of a dockworkers’ ghetto immortalized by Elia Kazan in “On the Waterfront.”
But Hoboken took a sharp turn when it elected Ms. Zimmer mayor in 2009. She had entered local politics primarily because she thought Hoboken needed more parks. She joined the City Council during the second term of David Roberts, who as mayor welcomed development and encouraged the construction of the 25-story W Hotel that is still Hoboken’s tallest building.
After granting several interviews last week, Ms. Zimmer stopped speaking publicly about the issue, saying federal investigators had asked her not to. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Mr. Christie provided the dates of five meetings Ms. Zimmer had with state officials over the past year in which they discussed how the state could help Hoboken recover from the hurricane. The spokesman, Colin Reed, also noted that the mayor had asked Rockefeller engineers to come up with ideas to protect the city from major storms, and in her January 2013 State of the City speech, she thanked them for doing so.
The Christie administration also has questioned the timing of her accusations, which came eight months after the Guadagno meeting, and just days after evidence surfaced that the governor’s aides had created a huge traffic jam in Fort Lee to punish its mayor. That episode, too, is under federal investigation.
City’s North End
A wave of residential development and the long decline of manufacturing had already swept away much of Hoboken’s industrial past, including a shipyard and the factories that produced Stahl Soap, Lipton Tea, Maxwell House coffee and Tootsie Rolls.
Rockefeller Group, a national developer, began prowling Hoboken for construction sites in 2007. (The company built Rockefeller Center, but has not had a relationship with the Rockefeller family since the late 1980s.)
At the northern end of Hoboken, not far from the mouth of the always congested Lincoln Tunnel, Leslie E. Smith Jr., Rockefeller Group’s executive vice president overseeing development in the region, envisioned a vast, $1.1 billion complex that included a 40-story office tower, 300 condominiums and parking for 1,400 cars. Another developer, Larry Bijou, had spent two years and upward of $70 million buying land in the north end, for a residential and retail development of 14-story buildings.
By late 2007, with the economy starting to flag, Mr. Bijou agreed to sell most of the property — roughly 4.9 acres on three adjoining blocks — to Rockefeller Group, for about $100 million.
Mr. Roberts, the mayor, did not dismiss Rockefeller Group’s concept out of hand. There was, after all, the promise of 5,000 jobs and millions of dollars in state and local taxes. But he had questions about putting a large office complex on the north side of Hoboken, instead of closer to the city’s transit hub at the south end.
Mr. Roberts said in a recent interview that he needed “more convincing that it could work, and more discussion about mass transit.”
The next mayor, Peter J. Cammarano III, seemed enthusiastic about the project, but he resigned after 31 days in office, after he was caught accepting a $25,000 bribe from an F.B.I. cooperating witness who was posing as a developer.
The Rockefeller investment was a risky proposition from the start. There were no indications of what zoning changes the Council would allow in Hoboken, where a 14-story building is considered a high-rise, and many residents wanted to retain the relatively low-scale character of the city.
According to people who know him, Mr. Smith presumed that the company, with its resources and connections, could overcome any obstacles and get the project approved within two years.
In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Smith said: “The north end of the city presented an excellent opportunity for commercial development and infrastructure improvements that would benefit all of Hoboken. We feel our project will make a positive contribution to employment opportunities, new amenities and future tax revenues for the city.”
In 2007, Rockefeller Group hired Wolff & Samson, a law firm with deep ties to New Jersey’s Republican leaders, to handle environmental issues. The company hired DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole, a firm with Democratic connections, to handle land use issues, and the Hoboken Strategy Group, run by a former vice chairman of the Hudson County Democratic organization, to lobby local officials.
Ms. Zimmer became mayor in 2009, promising more transparency in dealing with developers and better planning for the city’s future.
“It was a political sea change in Hoboken,” said Thomas W. Newman, a cabinetmaker and former councilman. “Part of the machine-style politics of the past was making deals with the developers.”
Ms. Zimmer kept the developer and their lobbyists at arms’ length, saying she did not want to deal with a single project before she had conducted a planning study for the entire north end. But there was never any money in the city budget for the study.
If the Rockefeller Group could not gain much traction with local officials, they were doing better with the Corzine administration. In 2009, the state’s Economic Development Authority approved reimbursing Rockefeller Group up to $750,000 for the removal of contaminated soil and underground storage tanks and monitoring groundwater contamination.
Efforts on the state level accelerated after the election of Mr. Christie as governor in late 2009. Mr. Christie, like most governors, has been eager for new developments and uses them to lure companies to New Jersey.
He also is close to David Samson, a Wolff & Samson founder whom the governor would name as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in October 2010, a connection that Ms. Zimmer and her supporters have highlighted. The firm said in a statement that its work for Rockefeller Group was “appropriate in all respects.”
The company suggested that the mayor seek money for a planning study from the Port Authority, which sets aside some of its revenue from tolls and airport fees for local economic development projects. Bill Baroni, a former state senator and Christie appointee at the Port Authority, authorized up to $75,000 for the study. Mr. Baroni, who emails indicated was involved in the Fort Lee lane closings, has resigned from the Port Authority.
The study dragged on for two years, delayed partly because of the hurricane. Four years after buying the Hoboken parcels, Rockefeller Group still had no certainty that it could build a large-scale project, so it asked Wolff & Samson to expand its work with the Christie administration in early 2012, two executives involved with the project say.
When the study, conducted by a planning firm based in Trenton, was finally completed in early 2013, it concluded that out of 19 north end blocks, only the three Rockefeller Group blocks qualified for redevelopment. That recommendation, if ratified by the city, would have given Rockefeller tax breaks for up to 30 years.
The group believed that the slow gears of City Hall were finally moving. It demolished buildings in danger of collapse, including the old Tootsie Roll factory, later used by Macy’s to store its Thanksgiving Day parade floats. The company also thought the mayor was warming to it, especially after her State of the City speech.
A few months later, the company struck a memorandum of understanding with New Jersey Transit to build a light rail stop near their property. Transportation planners have long said a station would someday be needed there, but for Rockefeller Group, which would pay part of the costs, it made the project more attractive to tenants. A spokesman for the mayor said that Ms. Zimmer was not apprised of the agreement. A transit agency spokesman declined to discuss it.
By the mayor’s accounting, the pressure really began last spring. In an April email, Hoboken’s planning lawyer wrote that Mr. Samson and Lori Grifa, a lobbyist from his firm and a former member of Mr. Christie’s cabinet, wanted to meet with him. The planning lawyer wrote that he was “getting the full court press on this.”
Later that month, Hoboken officials discovered that Ms. Grifa was going to be in attendance at the May 9 meeting in Trenton about flooding. “If this is a meeting between city and state, please explain what role Lori Grifa has in this,” a mayoral aide, Stephen Marks, wrote in an email to one of Ms. Grifa’s colleagues at Wolff & Samson.
“Wolff & Samson P.C. and Lori Grifa categorically deny Mayor Zimmer’s allegations relating to this firm’s role in the Rockefeller Group’s redevelopment project,” the firm said in a statement.
The day before that meeting, May 8, Ms. Zimmer wrote her letter to Mr. Christie: “I have tried to assure Hoboken residents that Hoboken would be treated fairly because you have always treated Hoboken fairly in the past.”
That was also the day that the planning board met to vote on whether to accept the redevelopment study. As it turned out, Rockefeller might have inadvertently hurt its own bottom line. The planner who did the study, Michael Sullivan, told the board that after the demolitions, two of the three Rockefeller blocks would no longer qualify as redevelopment property under New Jersey guidelines. With that, the planning board voted to designate the entire north end a “rehabilitation” area, allowing for much smaller tax breaks.
Rockefeller Group said the decision made no difference; the zoning change it needed was still possible.
Accusations and Denials
The conversation between Ms. Zimmer and Ms. Guadagno occurred the following Monday. She has said Ms. Zimmer’s version of their talk is “not only false, but is illogical.”
In the fall, the governor’s office called Ms. Zimmer’s office to set up a meeting with two state officials: Marc Ferzan, who oversees New Jersey’s hurricane recovery and rebuilding efforts, and Michele Brown, who oversees economic development. To the mayor’s office, the meeting, which was postponed, was another example of the Christie administration’s tying hurricane aid to the Rockefeller project.
Mr. Reed, the governor’s spokesman, said that was a mischaracterization. “It’s common practice for members of the Christie administration to jointly meet with officials from Sandy-impacted communities across New Jersey,” he said, noting that Ms. Brown’s agency also has a major role in distributing hurricane relief money.
Ms. Zimmer has also alleged that, in a separate meeting in December, Mr. Ferzan linked Hoboken’s prospects for receiving aid to her appetite for development. A spokesman for the governor said that Mr. Ferzan denied drawing any such connection.
Privately, representatives of Rockefeller Group say they were taken aback by the mayor’s accusations, especially after their cooperation with the city on flood planning. And just a few days before she first discussed her meeting with Ms. Guadagno, on Jan. 18 on MSNBC, Ms. Zimmer met with company representatives in her office. They presented their latest plans, scaled back to 1.5 million square feet of office space, down from 1.8 million, with a possible future apartment building and no buildings taller than the W Hotel.
Last week, the mayor invited the public to view plans for protecting Hoboken from floods should it get the necessary funding. City officials said it was merely a set of ideas, not concrete plans.
But the Rockefeller Group representatives could not help thinking that the proposal was sending a message. In the drawings, one of the company’s three blocks had become a retention pond.
***************Former lawyer for Christie takes helm of ethics watchdog agency
on January 29, 2014 at 7:38 PM, updated January 30, 2014 at 7:51 AM
TRENTON — A former lawyer for Gov. Chris Christie has been installed as executive director of the state's ethics watchdog agency as his top aides face a series of allegations that they abused their power for political purposes.
As a result, Susana E. Guerrero, an in-house lawyer for the Republican governor from 2010 to 2012, will oversee the investigations of any ethics complaints or potential conflicts of interest concerning her former colleagues. She was appointed Tuesday.
The appointment led one former Democratic governor to question whether Guerrero should be the top ethics cop in Trenton, potentially investigating the same people she worked with for years.
Guerrero, 41, began her career at the law firm Dughi, Hewit & Palatucci, working with one of Christie's closest political advisers, Bill Palatucci, then a partner at the firm, and briefly crossed paths with Christie while he was a lobbyist there in the early 2000s. Most recently, she was a top deputy to state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
State lawmakers, U.S. senators and the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, are all investigating what role Christie aides and associates played in closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September, causing a huge traffic jam in Fort Lee that many Democrats say was political payback for the borough's mayor.
Separately, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has alleged that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and two other members of Christie's cabinet pressured her to approve a real estate development in exchange for Hurricane Sandy relief funds.
Andrew S. Berns, a Republican lawyer appointed by Christie as chairman of the Ethics Commission, said five of the seven commissioners met Tuesday and approved Guerrero unanimously after reviewing her resume and qualifications.
Berns said the commissioners did not debate whether her close ties to the administration or past work with Christie in private practice should disqualify her from the position.
"She's extremely well qualified and it wasn't a concern of ours," Berns said. "It's just not something that we consider. The people are very committed to evaluating each case on a case-by-case basis."
While the governor has the power to appoint all the commissioners to the independent ethics agency, Christie's predecessors refrained from recommending executive directors.
Berns said since he became chairman in 2010, the commission has appointed two directors recommended by the governor's office.
The previous one, Peter Tober, was also an in-house lawyer for Christie before he took the ethics job, Berns said. Tober left this month after winning confirmation to a state Superior Court judgeship.
"I would say that he was qualified, objective and handled the office as well as I could have expected," Berns said of Tober. "I have never noticed one way or the other any political bent. I assume that if complaints come to us, they will be dealt with in the same way."
But state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who toughened New Jersey's ethics laws as governor after the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey, said Christie's office should not be recommending candidates to lead independent agencies such as the Ethics Commission. Before Christie, the commissioners themselves would find and interview candidates for the top job.
"You want someone who is independent of politics," said Codey. "I'm not criticizng the person, but it sends the wrong signal."
Records show Guerrero is a registered Democrat.
A spokesman for Christie, Kevin Roberts, defended the selection.
"Ms. Guerrero is widely respected across state government as a legal professional and public servant," Roberts said in an email today. "She was not only nominated by a Democrat, but received a unanimous vote of approval by the bipartisan membership of the Ethics Commission."