TIME Security

Everything We Know About Sony, The Interview and North Korea

What we know, what we don't know, and how a movie got pulled

Sony Pictures Entertainment said late Wednesday that it’s pulling The Interview, a comedy about two journalists tasked with killing North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un. Sony’s move came a day after a cryptic message appeared online threatening attacks against theaters that played the film, and several weeks after hackers first breached Sony’s system and posted troves of private emails and other data online.

Shortly after Sony decided to scrub The Interview, a U.S. official confirmed to TIME that American intelligence officials have determined North Korea was behind the Sony hack, though no evidence has been disclosed.

Here’s everything we know for sure about the Sony hack, up until now.

What happened?

On Nov. 24, Sony employees came to work in Culver City, Calif., to find images of grinning red skulls on computer screens. The hackers identified themselves as #GOP, or the Guardians of Peace. They made off with a vast amount of data (reports suggest up to 100 terabytes), wiped company hard drives and began dumping sensitive documents on the Internet.

Among the sensitive information the hackers divulged: salary and personnel records for tens of thousands of employees as well as Hollywood stars; embarrassing email traffic between executives and movie moguls; and several of the studio’s unreleased feature films. More is likely to come, as Sony Pictures Co-Chair Amy Pascal said the hackers got away with every employees’ emails “from the last 10 years.”

MORE: The 7 most outrageous things we learned from the Sony hack

And the attack has already affected other companies: Secret acquisitions by photo-sharing app Snapchat, for instance, have been made public thanks to leaked emails from Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, who sits on Snapchat’s board.

Who did it?

That’s the million-dollar question. For a few reasons, suspicion has zeroed in on the North Korean government or a band of allied hacktivists. The hermit kingdom is apoplectic over The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play journalists who land a face-to-face with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, only to be asked by the CIA to assassinate the reclusive leader. The comedy features graphic footage of the dictator’s death, which didn’t go over well in a country built on a hereditary personality cult.

From a forensic perspective, the hack had hallmarks of North Korean influence. The attackers breached Sony’s network with malware that had been compiled on a Korean-language computer. And the effort bore similarities to attacks by a hacking group with suspected ties to North Korea that has carried out attacks on South Korean targets, including a breach of South Korean banks in 2013. That group, which is alternately known in the cybersecurity community as DarkSeoul (after its frequent target) or Silent Chollima (after a mythical winged horse), often uses spear-phishing—a cyber-attack that targets a specific vulnerable user or department on a larger network.

MORE: U.S. sees North Korea as culprit in Sony attack

That does not necessarily mean the North Korean government, or even the same hacker collective, is responsible. In the world of cyberwarfare, hackers will often dissect and imitate successful techniques.

Even the clues that point toward Pyongyang could be diversions to deflect investigators. For example, the perpetrators could’ve manipulated the code or set the computer language to throw suspicion on a convenient culprit. Pyongyang has denied involvement.

Why did Sony scrub The Interview?

People who may or may not have been tied to the hackers posted a vague message Tuesday threatening 9/11-style attacks against theaters that chose to play the film. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said there wasn’t any evidence of a credible threat against American movie theaters, but several major chains, including AMC and Regal, decided to play it safe—all told, chains that control about half of the country’s movie screens decided against playing The Interview. Sony then followed suit, pulling the movie entirely.

Were theaters really in danger?

It’s tough to say for sure. North Korea has made lots of bloviating threats toward the U.S. before, so anything that comes out of Pyongyang should be taken with a grain of salt. But again, no concrete proof has been made public yet that these attacks or the threat came from North Korea—or even that they came from the same person or group.

Will we ever get to see The Interview?

Probably. The movie cost about $44 million to make, according to documents leaked by the hackers. The ad campaign so far has cost tens of millions on top of that, although Sony has pulled the plug on further TV spots. A total loss on that investment would be a tough pill for Sony to swallow.

MORE: You can’t see The Interview, but TIME’s movie critic did

What will most likely happen is some limited release in the future when everything calms down, perhaps bypassing theaters and going right to Blu-Ray/DVD and on-demand services. There’s also a chance Sony could release the film online. That would eliminate pretty much any safety risk to viewers, but could further enrage whoever hacked Sony—assuming they actually care about The Interview and it’s not just a red herring. It would also let Sony capitalize on all the sudden interest in the film generated by the hack and threats. Don’t expect to see it soon: Sony said late Wednesday it’s not planning any kind of release. But it could, of course, be leaked online.

In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, President Barack Obama called the hack against Sony “very serious,” but suggested authorities have yet to find any credibility in the threat of attacks against theaters.

“For now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies,” Obama said.

How did the hackers do it?

We don’t know exactly. Cyber-security experts say the initial breach could have occurred through a simple phishing or spearfishing attempt, in which the hackers find a soft spot in the company’s network defenses. That can be a coding error or an employee who clicks on an infected link. These breaches occur all the time. FireEye, the parent company of the cybersecurity firm Sony hired to probe the hack, studied the network security of more than 1,200 banks, government agencies and manufacturers over a six-month period ending in 2014, and found that 97% had their last line of defense breached at some point by hackers.

“Breaches are inevitable,” says Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “But that just means they’ve gotten in the door. It doesn’t mean they’ll be able to walk out with the crown jewels or set fire to the building.”

Once inside, hackers will try to gain elevated security privileges to spread across the network. What made the Sony hack different was the fact that it wasn’t detected until large quantities of data had been swiped. And what stood out, several analysts say, was not the sophistication of the breach but the havoc the culprits sought to wreak. “The attack was very targeted, very well thought out,” says Mike Fey of the network-security firm Blue Coat Systems, who believes the hackers “planned and orchestrated” the attack for months.

What are investigators doing to find out who’s responsible?

Sony has brought in experts at Mandiant, a top security firm, to lead the probe of the hack. Their investigation, outside security experts say, will be similar in some ways to the forensic analysis that follow a murder: studying data logs, reviewing network communications, poring over code, matching clues to potential motives. It may involve probing bulletin boards on the Dark Web, where hackers sometimes go to seek advice on technical troubles.

“There’s a lot of detective work you can do,” says former Department of Justice cybercrime prosecutor Mark Rasch. “Are they native English speakers? What programming language do they use? The code will have styles, signatures and tells.”

And investigators are tracking the IP addresses from which the attack was launched, which in the case of the Sony hack included infected computers in locations ranging from Thailand to Italy.

What happens if it was North Korea?

It’s tough to say. It’s unprecedented for a state actor to conduct a cyberattack of this scale against a U.S. corporation. If that turns out to be the case, however the U.S. decides to respond will set the tone for a whole new kind of cyberwar.

Could the Sony hack happen to other companies?

It’s increasingly likely. Sony is unusual in large part because the attackers appear to have been driven by a desire to cause destruction, rather than financial motives. And the strange geopolitical overtones of the hack add a dollop of intrigue. “It’s a milestone because it’s such a large-scale destructive attack that is rooted in this bizarre political messaging,” says security researcher Kurt Baumgartner of Kaspersky Lab.

But cyber-warfare is a growing threat for which most companies are ill-prepared. Joseph Demarest, assistant director in the FBI’s cyber division, testified to a Senate panel earlier this month that the malware used in the Sony hack “probably [would have] gotten past 90% of the net defenses that are out there today in private industry.” Banks and government agencies tend to have better security, but in recent months major retailers like Target and Home Depot have been hit. When targeted by competent and persistent hackers, corporate defenses will often be outmatched. “This is a great wakeup call,” says Kevin Haley, a director at Symantec Security Response. “We need to get better at securing our organizations.”

-Additional reporting by Sam Frizell

TIME Crime

Ferguson Protesters Try to Block Use of Tear Gas

Police Shooting Missouri
An explosive device deployed by police flies in the air as police and protesters clash after tear gas was thrown on Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Jeff Roberson—AP

A federal judge told cops not to use of gas to disperse crowds without proper warning

A federal judge in St. Louis ordered local police to limit their use of tear gas after Ferguson protesters filed a complaint alleging their right to peaceful assembly had been violated.

Carol Jackson, a judge in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri, issued a temporary restraining order Thursday after a hearing in which protesters argued they had been gassed without warning amid peaceful protests that erupted anew last month when a grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.

The ruling requires police to respect demonstrators’ rights to lawfully assemble and provide clear warning before resorting to the use of chemical agents. It represents a modest victory for the protest movement, which previously won a courtroom victory when a different judge ruled that a policy that required protesters to walk continuously was unconstitutional.

At the same time, the impact of the temporary order is limited. It applies only to Missouri, and leaves the definition of fair warning at the discretion of police. Another hearing was scheduled for next month, according to reports.

The suit argued that local law-enforcement leaders violated the constitutional rights of demonstrators who had peacefully gathered to protest the grand jury’s decision. It focused on an incident that occurred late on the night of Nov. 24, as the region erupted in the aftermath of the announcement.

According to court documents, protesters had gathered outside a St. Louis coffeehouse when officers ordered the crowd to vacate the street. “Without notice or warning,” the complaint alleges, police then began firing tear gas canisters at the crowd, some of whom ran into the coffee shop, which filled with gas. Several protesters were sickened by the fumes.

The suit was filed by six plaintiffs: four protesters, the store owner and a legal observer who witnessed the episode. Chemical agents like tear gas and smoke have been used frequently to disperse crowds during the demonstrations that have rocked the region since Brown’s death in August.

Police defended the practice and said there was no attempt to injure protesters.”We don’t go to tear gas right away. We said over a loudspeaker, ‘This is an unlawful assembly, please leave the area,'” Sam Dotson, the St. Louis police chief who was named as a defendant in the suit, told the Riverfront Times. “This is where people lose focus a little bit. When the order to disperse is given, it applies to everyone. People always say, ‘It’s not me, so I don’t have to leave.’ The challenge for law enforcement is that we don’t know who the good guys are or who the bad guys are, because the bad guys intermingle with the good guys.”

TIME Congress

Congress Narrowly Avoids Government Shutdown

Congress averted a short-term shutdown by passing a spending bill before midnight

The House squeaked through a $1.1 trillion bill Thursday night with only hours to spare before a midnight deadline that would have shut down the government.

On the House floor, the vote tally—219 to 206—was watched as closely as the scoreboard in the final minutes of a hard-fought game after the initial scheduled vote was postponed for seven hours of arm-twisting, including a plea from White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to House Democrats. Congressmen ordered Armand’s and Papa John’s pizza when it became clear they would have to stay for dinner.

“Merry Christmas,” said Ohio Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi with more than a trace of faux enthusiasm after Washington’s worst holiday tradition was over.

There was a significant chance that the bill wouldn’t have passed, forcing a short-term, months-long patch. As it became clear that the Republican-controlled House was short of the votes, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden began calling wavering House Democrats. At the same time, House GOP leaders whipped the rank-and-file members they needed.

If the two sides couldn’t cobble together a majority by midnight, the government would have temporarily run out of funding. “I don’t think there’s going to be a government shutdown,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told MSNBC as the sun set on the Capitol with no agreement in sight.

The last-minute scramble to pass a spending measure called up unpleasant memories of the past several years, when Congress has repeatedly edged right up to deadlines to pass stopgap legislation. In each case, the legislative branch managed to skirt disaster—until last fall, when the Republican Tea Party faction forced a shutdown in an effort to gut the Affordable Care Act. That 16-day shutdown damaged the GOP brand badly, and its leaders promised to sidestep a sequel.

But members of both parties found things in the omnibus bill to hate. Liberal Democrats, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, oppose provisions that would raise the maximum donation that wealthy individuals can give to political parties, as well as another that would provide government backing to some derivative trading measures like credit-default swaps. On the right, some conservative Republicans oppose the bill because it doesn’t defund Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

As a result, Thursday’s logjam caught many in the capital by surprise. Should a shutdown occur, it would have almost surely been short-lived. But the lack of support forced Republicans leaders to delay a planned vote.

“I’m not sure we have the votes,” said Rep. Robert Pittenger, a North Carolina Republican mere hours before the vote. “I do wish that President Obama and Nancy Pelosi would read off the same page.”

The White House urged Democrats to back the bill. “Democrats should be on board,” Earnest said, arguing a short-term spending resolution would leave the party with “even less leverage.” That message was reiterated in the McDonough meeting, which took place for over an hour in the basement of a Capitol annex.

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York said Thursday afternoon that he had been urged by the White House to support the measure. “Do you throw the baby out with the bath water or don’t you?” he said. “I think that’s what we’re all grappling with.”

The Office of Management and Budget held a call with executive agencies Thursday to discuss preparations for a possible shutdown, which officials believed was unlikely. But Congress still had to pass a short-term bill to push back the government shutdown deadline two days so the Senate would have enough time to pass the bill, as expected.

 

TIME intelligence

CIA Director Defends Agency Over Senate Report

"Our nation, and particularly this agency, did a lot of things right during this difficult time," John Brennan said

CIA Director John Brennan defended his agency from a sharply critical Senate report into its post-9/11 detention and interrogations in a rare press conference Thursday.

Speaking from the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., Brennan called the report “flawed,” chafed at its level of disclosure, and disagreed with the report’s conclusions that the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” were ineffective. Brennan called the efficacy of those tactics, which included waterboarding and sleep-deprivation, “unknowable.”

Brennan opened his public statement with a drawn-out reminiscence of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, calling it the “backdrop” for the use of those tactics. “Whatever your views are on EITs, our nation, and particularly this agency, did a lot of things right during this difficult time,” he said.

Casting the efforts of the agency as a scramble to protect the nation after the deaths of nearly 3,000 fellow citizens, Brennan acknowledged that the CIA was in “uncharted territory” with the interrogation and detention programs, and had made mistakes.

“I look back at the record and I see this was a workforce that was trying to do the right thing,” Brennan said. “I cannot say with certainty that individuals acted with complete honesty.”

The CIA director questioned the Senate panel’s decision not to interview the officers involved in carrying out or overseeing the program to understand their perspective. “I think it’s lamentable that the committee did not avail itself of the opportunity to interact with CIA personnel,” he said.

Under questions from reporters, Brennan openly complained about the contents of the Senate report. “I think there’s been more than enough transparency that has happened over the last couple of days,” Brennan said. “I think it’s over the top.”

Brennan refused to characterize some of the CIA’s activities as “torture,” despite President Obama’s declaration in August that “we tortured some folks.” He would only concede that some officers “exceeded the policy guidance that was given,” adding that they were “abhorrent, and rightly should be repudiated by all.”

Brennan would only concede that the use of coercive techniques had a high likelihood of producing false information.

“We fell short when it came to holding some officers accountable for their mistakes,” Brennan added. The Department of Justice ended criminal probes of the practices in 2012 without charging any of the officers involved.

Weighing into one of the most contentious debates about the utility of program, Brennan said it was a fact that detainees subjected to brutal interrogation techniques provided information that led to the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“I am not going to attribute that to the use of the EITs,” Brennan said. “I am just going to state as a matter of fact the information they provided was used.”

Saying the detention and interrogation program ended seven years ago, “my fervent hope is that we can put aside this debate and move forward.”

TIME Congress

Congress Hands A Mixed Bag to Marijuana Movement

Charlotte's Web harvest at the Stanley Brother's farm in Wray, Colorado for Pot Kids story.
Industrial grade hemp grows on the Stanley Brother's farm near Wray, Colo., Sept. 22, 2014. Matt Nager for TIME

The year-end spending bill gives momentum to the marijuana movement, plus a painful setback

For the marijuana legalization movement, 2014 ends the way it began: with legal changes that showcase the movement’s momentum alongside its problems.

Tucked into the 1,603-page year-end spending bill Congress released Tuesday night were a pair of provisions that affect proponents of cannabis reform. Together they form a metaphor for the politics of legal pot—an issue that made major bipartisan strides this year, but whose progress is hampered by a tangle of local, state and federal statutes that have sown confusion and produced contradictory justice.

First the good news for reformers: the proposed budget would prohibit law enforcement officials from using federal funds to prosecute patients or legal dispensaries in the 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, that passed some form of medical-marijuana legalization. The provision was crafted by a bipartisan group of representatives and passed the Republican-controlled House in May for the first time in seven tries. If passed into law, it would mark a milestone for the movement, restricting raids against dispensaries and inoculating patients from being punished for an activity that is legal where they live but in violation of federal law.

“The enactment of this legislation will mark the first time in decades that the federal government has curtailed its oppressive prohibition of marijuana, and has instead taken an approach to respect the many states that have permitted the use of medical marijuana to some degree,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said in a statement to TIME. The California Republican’s work on the issue reflects the strange coalition that has sprung up to support cannabis reform as the GOP’s libertarian wing gains steam and voters’ views evolve.

At the same time, the House chose to overrule Washington, D.C., on the issue. Last month voters in the District chose to liberalize its marijuana laws, passing an initiative that legalized the possession, consumption and cultivation of recreational marijuana. The move, which was supported by about 70% of the capital’s voters, paved the way for D.C. to follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington State by establishing a tax-and-regulatory structure for pot sales in 2015.

Now those plans have gone up in smoke. The omnibus bill contains a measure that would block D.C. from using funds to enact legalization. Congress has the power to scuttle the District’s plans because it controls the capital’s budget. D.C. politicians blasted the move, while many in Congress lamented the agreement. But there appears to be little that members can do to stop it.

Trampling on the district’s sovereignty was especially galling, says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and a D.C. resident, when it happens at the same time that lawmakers uphold states’ rights elsewhere. “Republicans see D.C. as so rock-solid Democratic,” St. Pierre says, “that they won’t give it the autonomy they are otherwise willing to grant states.”

The spending bill caps a year in which pot moved to the forefront of the political debate in ways that longtime advocates never thought possible. A majority of Americans now support full marijuana legalization. In January, Colorado became the first state to establish a legal recreational pot market, following by Washington last summer. Both debuts had successes, yet both states were beguiled in their own ways by lingering federal challenges. In Colorado, legal million-dollar businesses still must conduct their business largely in cash, because federal law that classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug blocks legal merchants from the banking system. In Washington State, the new weed shops comprise just a small slice of the marijuana economy, a thin legal layer piled atop the entrenched medical market and an illicit black market that continues to thrive because of better prices.

But Washington struggles also underscore why the medical-marijuana measure in the Congressional spending bill is important. Medical patients in the Evergreen State have been at the whims of overzealous U.S. attorneys or members of the Drug Enforcement Agency, who had discretion to ignore the Obama Administration’s admonition to let the local experiments play out.

That left medical-marijuana patients like Larry Harvey, a septuagenarian retiree, trapped by a legal paradox. Harvey and his wife Rhonda were legal medical-pot patients who cultivated cannabis at their home in the mountains above Kettle Falls, Wash., until they were arrested on federal drug charges. They are currently awaiting trial. Larry Harvey, who has long suffered from gout and was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, has been unable to use marijuana to ease the pain. Now, says Kari Boiter, a medical-marijuana advocate at Americans for Safe Access who has worked closely with the Harveys, the family’s attorneys can argue that the government has no standing to pursue the case.

Overall, the spending bill is “more mixed signals from Washington, D.C.,” Boiter says. “But for medical marijuana patients, it is a real clear blow to the Department of Justice prohibition that has been crushing them. It feels like we’ve been vindicated.”

Update, 12/12: The original version of this story noted the bill contains a measure that would block D.C. from using federal funds to enact cannabis legislation. It also blocks the use of local funds.

Read next: Colorado Approves Credit Union for Pot Store

TIME Immigration

Obama Stays the Course on Immigration as Pressure Mounts

US-VOTE-MIDTERMS-OBAMA
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during a press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 5, 2014. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

A decision could come in mid-December

President Barack Obama has remained resolute in his plan to unilaterally reshape U.S. immigration law in the wake of his party’s heavy losses in last week’s midterm elections, but pressure is mounting from both sides as he approaches a decision later this year.

The White House has been tight-lipped about when Obama will use his executive authority on immigration, as well as what exactly the package of reforms will contain. But immigration activists say they still expect the President to issue orders that would protect up to several million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The move could come in mid-December, after lawmakers reach a spending agreement that would keep the federal government running, activists say.

The Democratic drubbing on Nov. 4 unleashed a fresh wave of threats from Republicans, who warned Obama that taking unilateral action on immigration would “poison the well,” as House Speaker John Boehner put it. “When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself,” Boehner cautioned at a post-election press conference last week. “And he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path.”

But Obama has shown no signs of heeding the advice. On multiple occasions since the election, he has vowed to stay the course. “I’m going to do what I can do through executive action,” Obama said Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation.

Obama’s determination has heartened some immigration advocates, who reacted angrily when the President made the political calculation to postpone the move until after the midterms. “It just seems like Obama, contra to the reputation he’s picked up of going all wobbly when things get intense, is ready to go forward,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform group America’s Voice. “People wouldn’t expect Obama to respond to the election by closing his fist and taking some swings, but that seems to be what he’s doing.”

The pressure on Obama to delay executive action is likely to build. Republican leaders say that skirting Congress to go it alone would ignite a controversy that jeopardizes the chances for cooperation between the President and the new GOP Congressional majority on a host of issues. “It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said. Immigration will be a touchstone in confirmation hearings for Loretta Lynch, Obama’s pick for attorney general. Tea Party conservatives in the Senate signaled they plan to use the hearings to press Lynch on her views of the President’s executive authority on immigration.

Enacting sweeping changes to immigration law just weeks after the party was rebuked by voters at the polls could spark a blowback from voters. In one recent survey, conducted by Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, 74% of respondents said they preferred Obama to work with Congress to retool a broken immigration system rather than maneuvering around the legislative branch.

Even some seasoned Democrats seem a bit skittish about the idea. Over a sea bass lunch Friday with Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, Obama told Boehner that his patience in waiting for the House to act on immigration had run out. At that point, according to a source familiar with the meeting, Vice President Joe Biden piped up to ask how long Republicans would need to craft immigration legislation—prompting the President to shoot Biden a look that closed the discussion.

Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and erstwhile head of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters last week that one way to avoid inflaming Obama’s antagonists was for the President to publicly outline the terms of the immigration order in the coming weeks, but wait until “April or June” to issue it, giving the GOP time to cobble together a bill.

Many Republicans are eager to address immigration in order to help repair their relationship with Hispanic voters, who will once again play a key role in the 2016 presidential election. But “it is not going to be at the top of the list” for the new Republican majority, acknowledged former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour, a supporter of immigration reform, on a conference call arranged by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Indeed, there is no evidence that the prevailing GOP opposition to comprehensive immigration reform in the House—and especially on a path to citizenship, about which Democrats are insistent—has softened.

It would take about six months for Administration officials to implement orders that could include work authorization and protections from deportation for three or four million people, along with changes to programs such as Secure Communities, a Department of Homeland Security program introduced under President George W. Bush that dictates how immigration officials enforce the law.

Such a move would mark a dramatic shift for a President who was careful not to inject himself into lengthy partisan wrangling over legislative specifics, then made a futile attempt to protect embattled Democrats this fall by sidestepping a political fight. This time he seems ready to pick one. “He waited until after the election to try to take it out of the political milieu,” Rendell said. “But he’s gotta do it.”

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME 2016 Election

Dr. Ben Carson’s Non-Campaign for President Hits the Air

Dr. Ben Carson is shown on a screen backstage while he speaks during the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
Dr. Ben Carson is shown on a screen backstage while he speaks during the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. Lexey Swall—Grain for TIME

A lengthy informercial on the conservative doctor may be a prelude to a presidential campaign

Pretending to run for president can be a lucrative business. Just ask Donald Trump, who’s milked every dime and dollop of attention from his perpetual flirtation with politics. So too can running a no-shot campaign. Just ask Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich, whose book sales skyrocketed from the attendant publicity.

Sometimes the spoils of fake campaigns accrue to people other than the supposed candidate. For many months now, a political-action committee has been raising money to cnovince retired doctor Ben Carson to run for president. Carson, who shot to stardom on the right with a rebuke to President Obama at the 2013 national prayer breakfast, has become a sizzling commodity in conservative circles, racking up straw poll victories and placing high in surveys of a hypothetical 2016 field. The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee has capitalized, raising a staggering $11 million this cycle in a bid to coax Carson to run. That’s more than the Ready for Hillary folks, even though Clinton seems nearly certain to run and Carson has told media, including TIME, that he has little interest.

He may have changed his mind. This weekend, an hour-long documentary on Carson will air in 22 states, plus Washington, D.C., including media markets in Oregon and upstate New York where Presidential politics rarely travels. Carson’s business manager is footing the bill for the program, entitled “Ben Carson: A Breath of Fresh Air.” The lengthy, expensive advertisement for Carson’s campaign-in-waiting convinced Fox News to cut ties with Carson, as it did in 2012 with Gingrich and Rick Santorum when those men took serious steps toward launching presidential bids. “2016 is upon us, and Ben Carson is first out of the gate,” declared the Democratic research firm American Bridge.

While the documentary seems to indicate that Carson is seriously mulling a campaign, it is not likely to convince rival political operations to take the doctor seriously.

There is no doubt that Carson is hugely popular on the right; in a recent poll of Iowa Republicans, he placed second to Mitt Romney in a ranking of prospective presidential candidates. And his backers have shrewdly tapped into the direct-mail fundraising machine that long been a powerful force on the right. But smart campaigns don’t blow huge sums on running over-long advertisements at odd times in states that don’t matter. It’s an unusual stunt for an unusual figure, who still may not be a candidate at all.

TIME 2014 Election

The Tom Steyer Strategy: Billionaire Activist Reflects on 2014

Tom Steyer Green Giant
Tom Steyer is building an army from his base in San Francisco Jason Madara for TIME

Despite mixed returns at the polls, the billionaire businessman remains bullish his climate campaign can change politics

In 2014, Tom Steyer emerged as the Democratic Party’s great green hope. The billionaire financier pledged to sink a chunk of his fortune into a campaign to make climate change a central issue in the midterm elections, and he delivered on his promise. Steyer’s political-action committee, NextGen Climate, spent some $65 million during the 2014 cycle. It ran ads in seven hand-picked states, assembled a sophisticated field organization and built a sprawling database of committed supporters.

Was it money well spent? If you measure success at the ballot box, Steyer’s return on investment may seem skimpy.

Just three of the seven candidates NextGen supported were victorious on Tuesday. Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen fended off a challenge from Scott Brown in New Hampshire; Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf coasted to victory in Pennsylvania; and Democratic Senate candidate Gary Peters won an open seat in Michigan.

But Steyer’s group lost competitive Senate races in Colorado and Iowa, states into which it poured nearly $12 million, and which may prove the difference in the battle for control of the chamber. (Not all ballots have been counted in the Alaska Senate contest, and Louisiana is headed for a December runoff.) NextGen also came out on the wrong side of tight gubernatorial races in Florida and Maine, despite heavy investment to dislodge incumbent Republicans Rick Scott and Paul LePage.

But Steyer is sanguine about the election’s outcome. In an interview with TIME on Thursday, he pointed to NextGen’s ability to push climate issues toward the forefront of campaigns, as well as its efforts to begin the construction of a political machine that can become a powerful force in coming years.

“In terms of the things that we can control, we felt like wow—we way over-performed our expectations,” Steyer says, noting that the group surpassed its target of amassing a quarter-million climate-driven voters by 100,000 and beat its goal by building an email list of a million names. “Climate was a top-tier issue in every one of the states we were working on,” Steyer says, “Which is a huge change—very different from 2012, very different from 2010.”

NextGen forced Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst to defend her climate position in Iowa, and Colorado Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner was sufficiently cowed to run ads touting his support for wind energy in the state. But both GOP candidates prevailed. And in both states, voters declined to rank climate in the top quartet of issues, according to CNN exit polls, instead listing foreign policy, healthcare, the economy and illegal immigration as their top priorities.

In Florida, Scott made only fleeting gestures to the environmental community, and in Maine Steyer’s group failed to oust LePage, who calls climate change a hoax. NextGen’s efforts may have put Republicans on the defensive, but that’s a relatively modest achievement for tens of millions of dollars.

With the GOP poised to take control of Congress in January, the prospects for positive legislation on environmental issues have dimmed. Republicans are preparing a push to approve the Keystone XL pipeline—”a terrible idea,” especially amid plunging oil prices, Steyer says—as well as a likely effort to green-light drilling on public lands. But Steyer says that while NextGen will stay focused on educating people about the economic and environmental benefits of pursuing progressive energy policy, he’s conscious of the limits of its power to affect the legislative process.

“Do I think it’s possible for us to educate people about the facts on the Keystone XL pipeline and influence their thinking by making them aware of what the underlying issues are? Sure,” he says. “But we definitely can’t control this issue” in Congress.

The same goes for this week’s outcome at the polls. Steyer chalks up the defeats in close races to the headwinds of waging a campaign in an off-year cycle, when a second-term president with foundering approval ratings buffeted Democratic candidates. “There was a Republican wave that has nothing to do with us, and in certain of those races, it swept over us,” he says. “It’s something we can’t control.”

And so Steyer hasn’t wavered in his political or financial commitments. NextGen is “not a drive-by super PAC,” he says. “We’re going to build political assets, we’re going to build an organization, we’re choosing states that have national significance. All those things are [still] true … regardless of the outcome. So I feel really good about what we did, and I feel really good about where we’re going.”

TIME 2014 Election

How the Republican Establishment Got Its Groove Back

Election Celebration Greg Abbott, Election
Supporters cheer as balloons fall after Texas Attorney General and Republican candidate for governor Greg Abbott's victory speech in Austin on Nov. 4, 2014. David J. Phillip—AP

After a stinging defeat last fall, the Republican Establishment seized control of the party and steered it to victory

For the Republican Party, Tuesday’s Senate triumph had roots in regret.

Last November, the GOP found itself perched on a political precipice. Its poll numbers had cratered, its demographic future was murky and the government shutdown had proven disastrous. Looming on the horizon was a year of bitter primary squabbles, which strategists feared would produce shoddy candidates capable of hobbling its quest to reclaim the Senate.

Twelve months later, Republicans notched sweeping victories, paced by a banner class of recruits and propelled by the money and muscle of an Establishment wing that finally snatched back the reins of the party. The GOP could not have defeated the Democrats without first dispatching its insurgents. And so the story of its decisive victory on Tuesday begins not in the corridors of the Capitol or on the stump in a swing state, but rather deep in Republican territory, with a sleepy special election in southwest Alabama.

In the wake of the shutdown debacle last fall, a mainstream Republican named Bradley Byrne was struggling to beat back Tea Partyer Dean Young for a seat opened by a congressional retirement. Young was the sort of insurgent the Establishment had grown to loathe. Incendiary and unpolished, he called Ted Cruz a model legislator and vowed to go to Washington to “shut it down again.” Party elders saw the race as their first chance to reshape the party in the wake of the shutdown. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose policy had long been to stay neutral in primaries, led a brigade of business lobbies into the district. The strike was a sneak attack. Eschewing TV ads, the Chamber quietly shelled out some $200,000 on the race, dropping direct mail around the district. Byrne won in a nail-biter.

It was the first time that the party’s establishment wing had directly confronted the Tea Party movement, and it set the tone for the battles to come. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell visited a Chamber board meeting the day after the race, and declared the sleepy special election the most important contest in the country, on a night that also saw Chris Christie win a decisive victory in the New Jersey governor’s race. It was a token of gratitude toward the Chamber, which would playing a leading role in the Establishment revolt, spending about $70 million on 2014 races and winning 14 of the 15 primaries it entered. “We don’t have anything against the Tea Party,” says Scott Reed, the Chamber’s chief political strategist. “But when a handful of bad actors hijacked the movement, that’s when we decided to step in.”

The goal, party strategists say, was to avoid the kind of disastrous candidates—the Todd Akins, the Sharron Angles, the Christine O’Donnells—whose extreme positions and outré remarks hampered the GOP up and down the ballot in past Senate stumbles. The plot to crush the Tea Party proved a smash success. For the first time since 2008, not a single incumbent Republican senator lost in a primary.

After Alabama, the emboldened Establishment moved quickly. Party committees blacklisted a Republican ad firm called Jamestown Associates, causing it to lose a series of lucrative contracts. Jamestown’s sin? Working with a group called the Senate Conservatives Fund, which was part of a passel of Tea Party groups who infuriated party bigwigs by egging on the shutdown. McConnell spread word that the leaders of these groups, whose organizing principle was fiscal discipline, were taking bloated salaries. The Senate Conservatives Fund, McConnell aide Josh Holmes, told the New York Times, “has been wandering around the country destroying the Republican Party like a drunk who tears up every bar they walk into. The difference this cycle is that they strolled into Mitch McConnell’s bar, and he doesn’t throw you out, he locks the door.”

In a series of key contests, the Establishment’s money and muscle helped lift struggling candidates out of crowded primary fields. In May, a coalition of center-right business groups boosted Thom Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker, over the 40% threshold to avoid a runoff, saving GOP forces around $20 million in the process. The next month, it did the same in Iowa for Joni Ernst, who went on to topple Democrat Bruce Braley in one of the year’s decisive Senate races.

Ernst also got a much-needed assist from a GOP research firm called America Rising. Launched by three top party operatives after 2012, the group had a mandate to erase the opposition research edge Democrats enjoyed in past cycles. The investment paid dividends early on a cold, dark March morning. Tim Miller, the group’s executive director, was reviewing the latest clips compiled by his team of twenty-something research junkies when he came across something so juicy it might just alter the balance of the Senate. “Holy s—!” he shouted. It was a video of Braley, standing before a half-dozen bottles of liquor at a Texas fundraiser, disparaging Sen. Chuck Grassley as a farmer who “never went to law school.”

Miller’s group leaked the video to an Iowa television reporter, hoping to assure at least a single airplay on local television, which would allow it to be aired in future ads. Instead it spread like wildfire. The clip cast Braley as out of touch with his agricultural state and proved a body blow to Braley’s Iowa hopes. In the final Des Moines Register poll, 39 percent of Braley’s own supporters said his comments about Grassley were a crucial mistake.

In all, dozens of research hits unearthed by America Rising would make their way into ads aired by candidates and allied groups. “One of our big takeaways from the last cycle was the Democrats did a better job of investing in tracking and opposition research,” says Miller. “This time we needed to invest in that in order to make our paid media more effective.”

Meanwhile, Republicans were expanding the political map by putting unexpected states into play. In March, prized recruit Cory Gardner coaxed potential challengers to let him run opposed against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. In Virginia, former RNC chair Ed Gillespie launched a bid against Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown moved to the Granite State to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in early April. Gillespie and Brown lost, but ran strong campaign that forced Democrats to funnel precious time and money into defending territory.

The next big moment came in a June, when GOP bigwigs scrambled to save Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran in a runoff against Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. Back in Washington, strategists saw McDaniel as a ticking time bomb. The GOP was so determined to be gaffe-proof in 2014 that it dispatched staffers to harass Senate hopefuls at a Washington airport in hopes of steeling them against surprise encounters with hostile trackers. McDaniel was the kind of firebrand they feared.

The establishment, led by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and his allies, pulled out every trick in the bag to snuff out the threat. In a tight runoff, they expanded the electorate by courting black voters. The Chamber enlisted Mississippi icon Brett Favre to cut a memorable ad for Cochran. They later repeated the tactic in North Carolina, where Nascar driver Richard Petty appeared in an ad for Tillis, and in Georgia, where hometown Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker made a Senate endorsement.

“If we had come up short in Mississippi, it would have had a domino effect” all summer, Reed says. “Beating McDaniel was a key turning point. It allowed us to turn the page on the primaries and focus on the general.”

As the Chamber led the way in the primaries and America Rising handled the research, the vaunted Koch network was laying the groundwork for November. The Kochs were the biggest spenders on the right on the 2014 election, with a hand in everything from the party’s ground game to its attack ads to its tech tools.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a Koch-based network of state-based activists, shelled out more than $125 million to boost Republicans. About half that sum was plowed into a robust ground game powered by some 550 field staff. AFP ran its first ads the week of Labor Day 2013, with a million-dollar buy against Kay Hagan in North Carolina. The campaign slowly chipped away at the incumbent’s s approval rating, which hovered around 55% as 2014 dawned. “The earliest and biggest strategic decision we made was to go early,” says AFP president Tim Phillips. As November drew near, other members of the Koch network switched up tactics. The super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund began running “express advocacy” ads, spending some $25 million to boost candidates that helped Republicans reclaimed the Senate. The move forced the group to disclose donors, which it had long resisted. “That was a big decision for the Koch network,” says Phillips.

All these changes—better candidates, better research, smarter spending—coalesced on Tuesday, when Republicans picked up at least 7 Senate seats to seize control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2006.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME 2014 Election

The Challenge for the New Republican Majority

The GOP won the 2014 elections. Now it has to start thinking about 2015 and 2016.

Republicans scored a decisive victory Tuesday night, winning at least 52 seats to gain control of the Senate for the first time since 2006. On a banner evening, the GOP reached its magic number around 11:30 p.m., knocking off Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Colorado and North Carolina and staving off challenges in key battleground states like Georgia and Kansas.

With the win, Republicans exorcised the demons of the last two election cycles, when they fumbled chances to retake the upper chamber. The decisive victory extended to governor’s races, where the GOP beat back hard-fought challenges in Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan and picked up a seat in Illinois. And the party padded its caucus in the House, where they appeared on course to earn the largest majority since the 1920s.

MORE: See all the election results

Of all the victors, the night belonged to Sen. Mitch McConnell, who began it by celebrating a hard-fought Senate victory in Kentucky and wrapped it with the knowledge that he would be the chamber’s next majority leader. “We do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” McConnell said at his victory party in Louisville, his wife beaming by his side. “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”

mitch.no.asterisk.indd
TIME

For McConnell, it was a moment to savor. The triumph was the realization of the Kentuckian’s lifelong ambition to become majority leader, as well as the culmination of his six-year plan to reclaim power in the Senate by thwarting Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. McConnell was also a chief architect of the quest to crush the Tea Party in 2014 primaries, a crusade which yielded the best roster of Senate candidates the party has boasted in recent memory.

Yet for all this success, the midterms may prove a pyrrhic victory for the Republican Party. The GOP sank a billion or more dollars into winning in 2014, but in doing so failed to fix the demographic challenges that threaten the party long into the future. In some ways, the triumph only deepened the problem. Republicans relied on a larger-than-ever share of white voters to win key races, but their performance with crucial constituencies—such as the Hispanic voters and young women that remain pillars of the Democratic Party—remained dismal. What’s more, the territorial gains the party notched this month are likely to be reversed in two years, when both the political map and the composition of the electorate will favor their opponents.

McConnell’s test now is to keep a caucus of soloists singing from the same songbook, and to demonstrate, after eight years in the minority, that Republicans are ready to govern as the party turns its sights to the 2016 presidential campaign. But Tuesday night’s victory may make the task harder.

After six years of opposing Obama’s agenda, it now falls on McConnell to craft one of his own. The transition to the majority won’t be easy. Unified Republican rule on Capitol Hill will heighten expectations of radical change.

But with Obama in the White House and Senate Democrats able to filibuster Republican priorities, the GOP has little shot at breaking the gridlock that has reigned in Washington. As majority leader, McConnell will have to unite a fractious caucus split between moderates who want to prove the GOP can govern and Tea Party legislators who interpret unified Republican control of Congress as a chance to fulfill the ambitions of the base. That means more votes to repeal Obamacare, more investigations into the White House, and the kind of austere fiscal policies destined to meet the president’s veto pen.

In the meantime, the fissures within the GOP look destined to widen. The Senate’s Tea Party faction includes several members who are fluent in the language of rebellion but have no patience for the dry prose of bipartisan governance. That includes members like Sen. Ted Cruz, whose loyalty is not to McConnell but to his own higher ambitions.

Cruz, the Texas freshman who is preparing for a prospective presidential bid, would not say whether he’d back McConnell in an interview with the Washington Post before the election. He pledged to try to pull the majority rightward, and promised a series of politically charged hearings “looking at the abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded this administration.” McConnell, along with House Speaker John Boehner, will have to satisfy constituents eager for an aggressive brand of conservatism without hobbling the prospects of the party’s eventual 2016 presidential candidate.

The first test will come this month, when Obama is expected to take executive action to rewrite part of U.S. immigration law, a move that will incense GOP voters. The Kentucky Senator has brushed aside the suggestion that the looming executive action on immigration could spark another government shutdown. And McConnell has expressed openness to sitting down with the President and searching for common ground, harkening back to his role in passing the Budget Control Act after the 2010 midterms and the fiscal cliff deal that extended the Bush-era tax cuts.

But the immigration debate is also a microcosm of how Republicans may have sacrificed their 2016 chances for a short-term victory. For the 2014 electorate, the issue’s politics were simple for Republicans: block reform at all cost. Opposing “amnesty” was a galvanizing issue to the GOP midterm base. But in 2016, McConnell will be forced to balance his members’ promises his cycle with the needs of his caucus and party to attract voters that reflect the changing electorate. “If they don’t move on immigration, 2016 will be a wave in our direction,” predicts one senior Democratic Party official.

Republicans realize that narrowing the gap with Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, is vital to their long-term viability. In the weeks after a 2012 defeat that few in the party saw coming, the Republican National Committee commissioned an “autopsy” into what went wrong, identifying problems from messaging to infrastructure. A blue-ribbon panel generated some simple, sage advice—with an emphasis on expanding the party. “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the group of party veterans wrote. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” The GOP went on to do just that, campaigning hard against immigration reform in a bid to turn out the older, whiter midterm electorate.

MORE: The weirdest moments of Election Day 2014

Campaigns are a science, and while they’re finally experimenting, the party still hasn’t quite found the formula that’s proven so successful for Democrats. This year the Republican National Committee created permanent field offices and deployed new digital tools, but is still a generation behind their opponents, according to operatives in both parties. “I think we’ve taken a big step in the right direction on tech,” says longtime Republican strategist Scott Reed. “But I’m not saying we’ve bridged the gap.” Says a Democratic official: “They are seeing what we built in 2012 and are trying to replicate it. They may get close, but they don’t have all the knowledge and data we gathered over the eight years prior.”

Democratic groups also maintain closer coordination and organization among their outside groups, with a well-oiled election machine that includes outside groups like House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, midterm powerhouses that reserved vast sums of cheap airtime months before GOP opponents. Despite Tuesday’s losses, Democrats ran disciplined campaigns that nearly prevailed in a year when they were buffeted with headwinds from a bad map and a second-term president with low approval ratings. The Democrats won a tough campaign in New Hampshire, where Senators Jeanne Shaheen fended off a spirited challenge from a talented candidate despite a spending onslaughts to prevail in a difficult climate.

On the GOP side, jumbled messages and duplicative efforts are not yet a thing of the past. “We have to get better at targeting messages to specific voters,” says Tim Miller, the executive director of American Rising, a GOP research firm. “We made some progress this cycle, but I still think we could have done a better job–just talking about (America) Rising—taking our research, taking our content and matching it with voters who would be moved by it. That’s something we want to do next cycle.”

MORE: Your guide to the 2016 GOP primary field

As they uncorked the champagne, many Republicans cautioned their compatriots not to misinterpret the results of an election fought on favorable footing: a series of contests where vulnerable Democrats in red states were forced to contend with angry midterm voters, in an anti-incumbent mood, with a presidential millstone hung around their necks.

“Republicans aren’t being given a mandate tonight. They are being offered an opportunity,” says GOP strategist Alex Castellanos. With some exceptions, he added, the GOP remains “a wounded confederation of visionless and message-less souls. But at least we have made sufficient progress to acknowledge that.”

It’s up to McConnell to continue to the progress. The incoming majority leader has a familiar set of legislative priorities lined up: approving the Keystone Pipeline, repealing the medical device tax and scuttling the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act—plus a push for tax reform, trade agreements, and an effort to overhaul the chamber’s procedures and tighten its light work schedule.

But for McConnell—the man who boldly declared that his top priority was to make Barack Obama a one-term president—goal number one remains winning elections. He did it on Tuesday night. Repeating the feat in two years will be a whole lot harder.

Read next: McConnell: No Shutdowns, No Full Obamacare Repeal

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