TIME 2014 Election

GOP Dubs Democrats the Party of the Rich in 2012 Turnabout

Hillary Clinton gives a speech at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa on Sept. 14, 2014. ; Mitt Romney speaks to supporters at an election-night rally on April 3, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Hillary Clinton gives a speech at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa on Sept. 14, 2014. ; Mitt Romney speaks to supporters at an election-night rally on April 3, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Jim Young—Reuters/Corbis; Scott Olson—Getty Images

What worked against Mitt Romney is now being wielded against Democrats

Republicans are turning the Democrats’ own playbook against them.

Two years after Democrats held the White House by painting Mitt Romney as a callous plutocrat, the GOP is borrowing a page from the same populist playbook. In close contests around the country, Republicans are hoping to gain an edge in the battle for control of the Senate by hammering Democrats as the party of the rich.

In Iowa, the Republican Super PAC American Crossroads has run three TV ads this month highlighting Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley’s fundraising links to liberal billionaire Tom Steyer. In Colorado, another outside GOP group, American Commitment, slammed Democratic Sen. Mark Udall for the same ties. In Kansas, advisers to Republican Sen. Pat Roberts are attacking a wealthy independent challenger (who Democrats tacitly support) for insufficient financial disclosures, and are raising questions about his “business dealings in the Middle East and the Cayman Islands.”

Sound familiar? In 2012, Democrats cast Romney as a rapacious “vulture” capitalist who was cocooned in the C-suite and blind to the challenges buffeting the middle class. Perhaps the most memorable ad of the election cycle was a brutal takedown of Romney’s Swiss bank account and tax havens in Bermuda and the Caymans, all set to the former private equity executive’s off-key crooning of “America the Beautiful.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pummeled Romney with unsubstantiated charges that he had used accounting gimmicks to skirt 10 years of tax payments.

The attacks succeeded. As political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck wrote in their book The Gamble, in surveys conducted throughout the race voters described themselves as ideologically closer to Romney than to President Barack Obama. But some of them voted for Obama anyway. The caricature that Democrats created—reinforced by Romney’s own tone-deaf remarks—was part of the reason. Obama regularly trounced Romney on “empathy” polling questions, such as which candidate cares more about “people like me.” Among voters who cited this as the trait that mattered most in a President, Obama won in exit polling by a margin of 81-18.

The strategy worked well enough that Republicans have dusted it off and put it use themselves. The campaign team dispatched to rescue Roberts in Kansas has seized on the vast wealth of independent challenger Greg Orman as a potential liability. They have attacked Orman, a businessman whose campaign filings indicate he is worth up to $86 million, as “another millionaire politician” with ties to a tainted Goldman Sachs exec and a private-equity partnership in the Caymans. In normal times, a seven-figure income and affiliation with high-flying financiers are badges of honor in the party. In campaign season, they are cudgels.

The GOP is hardly the only team trotting out this attack. Democrats have made the lavish political spending of the billionaire Koch brothers a centerpiece of their national strategy. In races around the country, they are painting conservative candidates as pawns of the Kochs’ political empire. It’s not clear whether the tactic will work when half the country has never heard of them. But this year, Republicans have found a foil of their own. They’re elevating Steyer, a liberal billionaire who has pledged to fork over $50 million to candidates this year, as the Democrats’ own billionaire bogeyman. That’s why he’s showing up in ads in multiple states, and why the Republican Governors Association has created a website introducing voters to a man they dubbed “Steyer the Liar.”

The truth beneath all the rhetoric is that both parties are desperate to recruit wealthy donors and candidates alike. But in a nation with rising inequality and millions of anxious voters, pitchfork populism will remain a staple of both parties’ campaign playbook before and after the midterm elections. The early rumblings of the 2016 race have focused on Hillary Clinton’s wealth: her massive book advance, her family’s speaking fees, her spacious homes. The media spent a month this summer chewing over how a multimillionaire could consider herself “dead broke.” In national politics these days, everybody seems to be cashing in at the polls on someone else’s money.

TIME National Security

The Meaning of the New ISIS Videos

Screenshot shows British hostage John Cantlie held by Islamic State militants at an undisclosed location on Sept. 23, 2014.
This still frame from a video released by ISIS on Sept. 23, 2014 shows British hostage John Cantlie who is currently being held hostage at an undisclosed location. EPA

ISIS has switched propaganda tactics, swapping snuff films for sermons

The orange jumpsuit is the same, but now there is no masked executioner, no knife, no barren desert backdrop. The new video series produced by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) features one of the militant group’s captives, British journalist John Cantlie, giving disquisitions from behind a desk.

As the United States begins a bombing campaign against targets in Syria, ISIS has switched propaganda tactics, swapping snuff films for sermons. In the first two installments of the ISIS lecture series, released on Twitter in recent days by the group’s Al-Furqan media center, Cantlie warns the West against the march to war.

“After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?” Cantlie says in the first video. “I’m going to show you the truth behind the systems and motivations of [ISIS].”

But for ISIS, the motivation behind the video is probably fear, says Rita Katz, the director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks Islamist extremism online. The murder of U.S. and British citizens failed to forestall the airstrikes, so the group is using the videos to argue the folly of foreign intervention against the self-declared Islamic caliphate.

To make the case, ISIS uses a familiar jihadist tactic: quoting Westerners critical of the West’s actions. In Cantlie’s second forced lecture, an almost six-minute clip released Tuesday, the British journalist, reading from a prepared script, quotes the former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, whom he praises for “considerable” knowledge of the Muslim world.

“Let’s get straight to the point with a quote from former-C.I.A.-chief-turned-vigorous anti-intervention-campaigner Michael Scheuer: ‘President Obama does not have the slightest intention of defeating the Islamic State,'” Cantlie says, quoting Scheuer to argue that a military strategy that relies on bombing but foreswears ground troops is a half-measure. Later in the video, Cantlie quotes a second U.S. official, former New Jersey Republican Gov. Tom Kean, saying the U.S. “failed to anticipate” the emergence of ISIS.

This is a shopworn rhetorical device for jihadi propagandists. In video lectures to the faithful, Islamist leaders regularly mix in reproachful quotes from top Western officials to buttress criticism of the U.S. and its allies. “There’s nothing better,” Katz says, “than using our own words against us.”

Scheuer—a veteran of the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden task force turned staunch critic of U.S. foreign policy—is something of a favored source for jihadists. His quotes have been invoked in propaganda videos and literature at least 16 times since 2007, according to a database compiled by SITE. He’s been referenced by figures ranging from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to al-Qaeda’s American-born spokesman, Adam Gadahn, to a high-ranking official with the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab.

But the old CIA hand is hardly the only U.S. insider whose insights are deployed by jihadists. Both Bin Laden and Zawahiri have quoted journalist Bob Woodward’s reporting from within the inner circles of the presidency. Gadahn has twice invoked the writing of American author John Perkins, whose books purport to reveal the economic incentives of U.S. military adventures abroad. A native Californian with a finger on the pulse of his former country, Gadahn name-checked Bernie Madoff in a 2009 speech assailing the avarice of the U.S. financial system.

The words of Presidents and senior administration officials are regularly repurposed in Islamist propaganda for one cause or another. So are the columns of well-known pundits. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been invoked at least three times by Zawahiri, while Bin Laden liked to borrow criticism from the political commentator Noam Chomsky to argue America’s depravity in one form or another.

The new ISIS video filches a term from Obama himself. “The president once called George Bush’s conflict ‘a dumb war,'” Cantlie notes, suggesting Bush’s successor was slipping into one of his own. As long as the terrorist lecture series continues, so too will the pattern of using the enemy’s words against them.

TIME National Security

Government Veterans to Take Fight to Extremists on Online Battleground

The Counter Extremism Project aims to wage cyberwar with groups like ISIS

A group of top former government officials on Monday launched a new organization devoted to fighting global extremism, including a program that will study the digital strategy of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in an effort to combat their success at spreading propaganda online.

The nonpartisan group, known as the Counter Extremism Project, said one of its initial goals will be to amass data on how ISIS distributes information and recruits sympathizers on the Internet. Over time, the group will try to help the U.S. government and global partners squelch the terrorists’ organizing advantage online, where government officials have lagged behind their enemies.

“You’ve got to think of the cyber-realm as a new battlefield, and we’ve been kind of absent,” Frances Townsend, the group’s president, told TIME. “We’ve not done it very effectively.”

The swift rise of ISIS has showcased the group’s proficiency on social media, where they have used platforms like Twitter to lure foreign fighters and sow terror through both polished propaganda and crude videos, such as the beheading of American journalists and a British aid worker.

In recent months, the U.S. State Department has ramped up its efforts to neutralize ISIS’s success at recruiting on the Internet by pointing out the group’s religious hypocrisy and penchant for brutal violence. But ISIS remains a step or two ahead of counter-terrorism efforts, flitting from platform to platform and finding new ways to disseminate their brutal message.

“The U.S. government doesn’t seem … to be that nimble,” says Townsend, a former Homeland Security adviser to President George W. Bush. The group will try to “build that tactical capability to counter that and push back.”

It’s not clear how the new organization will succeed where others have failed. Townsend said the “Counter Narrative Program” will start by collecting ISIS propaganda, learning how they tailor their message to target different audiences and providing translation services so that academics, journalists and researchers can study the terrorist group’s techniques.

From there, the program will craft a counter-messaging campaign, Townsend said, which might, for example, note ISIS’s record of human-rights abuses and its record of atrocities committed against women, children and civilians. But she said that it was too early to discuss specific tactics. “We’re going to take baby steps before we can walk or run,” Townsend says.

The Counter Extremism Project is modeled after United Against Nuclear Iran, a hawkish research and policy group, and shares some of the same top advisers. In addition to Townsend, the new organization’s leadership includes Mark Wallace, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and senior adviser to Republican presidential candidates, and former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman.

Another key element of the group’s mission will be to research and expose the financial networks that have propped up the rise of groups like ISIS. It will have offices in New York and Brussels, plus an additional location in Europe and likely a second office in Washington. The size of the organization will hinge on its fundraising prowess.

To encourage wealthy patrons, the Counter Extremism Project is structured as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that will shield the identity of its donors. “As a fundraising technique,” Wallace explained at a press conference on Monday, “keeping our donors secret inspires them to give.”

TIME Crime

Grand Jury Process Raises Questions About a Ferguson Indictment

Residents Of Ferguson Continue To Call For Change Over Handling Of Michael Brown Shooting
Police block demonstrators from gaining access to Interstate Highway 70 on Sept. 10, 2014 near Ferguson, Mo. Scott Olson—Getty Images

The ongoing grand jury proceedings may suggest the prosecutor is trying to avoid backlash if Wilson isn't indicted

Officer Darren Wilson testified this week in the grand jury investigation into his shooting of Michael Brown, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The newspaper’s scoop was unusual. Unlike most criminal-justice proceedings in the U.S., grand juries are highly secretive. Leaking information about them is a criminal act.

But perhaps it should no longer be surprising to see the investigation take an interesting turn. More than a month after Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., the grand jury appears to be nowhere near a decision on whether Wilson should be charged. And the road to justice has been paved with strange decisions.

Several elements of the grand jury’s proceedings have been uncommon, according to legal experts surveyed by TIME. None of these decisions are necessarily improper. But together they have raised eyebrows. “This is not your regular St. Louis grand jury case,” says Susan McGraugh, a veteran Missouri criminal-defense attorney and law professor at St. Louis University.

The investigation has been fraught from the start. Residents of Ferguson, who have massed in protests each day since Brown was killed on Aug. 9, immediately cast doubt on the impartiality of McCulloch, who has been the county’s elected prosecuting attorney since 1991. McCulloch’s father, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty by a black suspect. Critics have pointed to his record of charging police-involved shootings and suggested that his background may cloud his judgment in the case. There were early murmurs that McCulloch would recuse himself or be replaced by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. Instead, McCulloch has delegated the task of presenting evidence to two senior attorneys in his office.

The first unusual decision taken by the prosecutor’s office, experts say, was not to recommend a specific charge for Wilson. Instead, the prosecutors are presenting evidence as it becomes available, and leaving it up to the grand jury to decide what the evidence warrants.

To some members of the community, the decision was taken as a sign that McCulloch may be trying to avoid an indictment. “To present a case to a grand jury, without any direction or instructions with regard to what you want them to achieve,” says Adolphus Pruitt of the St. Louis NAACP, “gives the best odds that an indictment will not occur.”

McCulloch has ordered that all testimony in the case be transcribed. This is rare, because it can be used against witnesses in future legal proceedings. In addition, McCulloch has pledged to immediately release full transcripts and audio recordings of the panel’s testimony in the absence of an indictment. This too is highly unusual.

The prosecutor’s office, which did not respond to an interview request from TIME, has said these decisions were designed with transparency and openness in mind. But they may also be a way to head off criticism. “It will take the heat off McCulloch if the grand jury comes back with something that the public doesn’t like,” says McGraugh.

Without a charging recommendation, the grand jury has the option to indict Wilson on either first- or second-degree murder, or either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. “If they return an indictment for either murder or manslaughter, no one’s going to care that he didn’t have a charging recommendation,” says Jens David Ohlin, a professor at Cornell Law School. “If, on the other hand, they don’t return an indictment, he can deflect any criticism and say I presented all the evidence to the grand jury, and in their wisdom they decided.”

There is a greater chance that the jury declines to return an indictment than the public may expect, Ohlin says. “It’s a very difficult case.”

With three blacks and nine whites, the grand jury’s composition reflects the demographic makeup of the county, which is roughly one-quarter black. It was empaneled before Brown was shot, and began hearing evidence shortly after. The proceedings could prove unusually lengthy. Authorities originally suggested they expected a decision on whether to charge Wilson by mid-October. But a circuit judge recently extended the panel’s term, giving them until Jan. 7 to decide whether to charge the officer in connection with Brown’s death.

The case is complex, and justice is often slow. But within the community, there are suspicions that the protracted proceedings are a way to drag out the case until the anger on the streets fades—and, perhaps, to gain the benefit of winter weather that might deter protesters.

It won’t work, warns Pruitt of the NAACP. “If there’s no true bill,” he says, “as a community, we are going to be thrust right back into the same discontent and civil disobedience we experienced the first time around.”

TIME States

Californians Turn to Private Security to Police Pot Country

Lear Marijuana Pot Weed Private Security California
Lear personnel during a raid on an illegal trespassing marijuana operation. Lear

The workings of law enforcement are hard to track in the wildlands of California's pot country

On a recent Sunday, a local gardening club gathered with their local sheriff in Laytonville, Calif., a hamlet of 1,227 people in Mendocino County, America’s cannabis cultivation capital. By some estimates, up to 90% of the town’s residents are tied to the pot industry, and the event was a chance to ask about the county’s enforcement policies. Instead, some members of the community wanted to talk about a rumor that had been making the rounds.

Over the summer, residents claimed men in military gear had been dropping onto private property from unmarked helicopters and cutting down the medicinal pot gardens of local residents. Local law enforcement have conducted helicopter raids in the area, but some worried the culprit this time was different: a private-security firm called Lear Asset Management.

The confusion was easy to understand. In the wildlands of California’s pot country, the workings of law enforcement are hard to track, and the rules for growing pot are often contradictory. To add to the mess, the various local, county, state and federal enforcement efforts don’t always communicate with each other about their efforts. The added possibility of private mercenaries, with faceless employers, fast-roping from helicopters raised alarm bells for many farmers.

Founded in 2012, Lear (the name stands for Logistical Environmental Asset Remediation) is a creature of the area’s unique cannabis culture. The company employs about 15 people, who are mostly former military: ex-U.S. Special Forces, Army Rangers and other combat veterans. They fly out on rented helicopters, wearing camouflage fatigues, body armor and keffiyehs around their necks. They are hired by large land owners to do the work of clearing trespass gardens from private property, and perform forest reclamation, sometimes funded by government grant. Deep in the woods, they cut down illegal pot plants and scrub the environmental footprint produced by the backwoods drug trade. They carry AR-15 rifles, lest they meet armed watchmen bent on defending their plots.

Paul Trouette, Lear’s CEO, says his firm was not responsible for the helicopter raids that the town’s residents complained about. “We do not do any kind of vigilante, black ops, Blackwater stuff,” he says, noting the company is licensed and regulated by the state of California, and only works on private land when summoned by the owner. Trouette is neither cop nor soldier; he is a longtime Fish and Game commissioner in Mendocino County, and the head of an organization devoted to preserving local herds of blacktail deer. Security contracting, he says, grew out of volunteer environmental reclamation. “It was a natural for our company to move into security contracting,” he says. “It’s just too much to handle for private ownership.”

 Marijuana Pot Weed Private Security California
Highly trained personnel drop into a marijuana raid. Lear

The firm’s business model is rooted in the region’s complicated relationship with weed. Rich Russell, the commander of Mendocino’s major crimes task force, has estimated that about half of the county’s residents work in the marijuana economy. Many longtime growers are remnants of the back-to-the-land movement of the Sixties, who operate within the county’s legal cultivation limits. But the county’s dense forests and ideal cultivation conditions have also been a magnet for more dangerous elements.

In recent years, small bands of criminals colonized the county’s forests, concealing grow sites on vast parcels hidden deep in the woods. In 2011, Operation Full Court Press—a three-week raid jointly carried out by local, state and federal anti-drug agencies—netted some 632,000 marijuana plants in and around the Mendocino National Forest, with a street value in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Illegal growers have a record of shooting at hikers and law enforcement; in 2011, a former local mayor was killed while looking for a marijuana plot.

The perps also produce environmental disaster. They strew trash through the woods, poison wildlife and pollute streams. The environmental devastation is an even greater problem this year. As California copes with a crippling drought, thirsty pot plants from illegal gardens are sucking up the water supply, creating a “holocaust” for fish, Trouette says.

More recently, the trespass grow sites have migrated from public land onto the vast plots owned by private citizens and timber companies. Some of them have hired Lear to deal with the problem. The company has run about nine missions across California’s pot country this year, with more planned this fall, Trouette says. And while the company’s special-ops aspect gets much of the attention, most of the work focuses on environmental reclamation.

While some of Mendocino’s challenges are unique to the region, others highlight the legal tangle that threatens the industry’s growth at a moment when boosters are trying to take marijuana mainstream. Residents are permitted to cultivate up to 25 marijuana plants for medicinal use, about four times the standard for much of the rest of the state. Federal law still prohibits pot, classifying it as a Schedule I drug on part with heroin and ecstasy. The clashing statutes produce a patchwork system of justice, with enforcement sometimes varying from county to county even within states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal. Federal money-laundering law prevent most legitimate pot businesses from banking their proceeds, forcing them to endure the safety hazards and logistical hassles of handling huge sums of cash.

In Mendocino, officials have tried to sort out the murkiness. In 2012, an experimental program that attempted to license legitimate cannabis cultivation under the supervision of the county sheriff was shut down under pressure from the local U.S. Attorney. Meanwhile, the county district attorney has pioneered a controversial program that offers reduced sentences for certain growers who are willing to pay hefty restitution charges: $500 per pound of seized pot and $50 per plant. While the approach has helped clear a case backlog and restocked the department’s coffers, critics say it allows wealthier clients to purchase leniency.

Reports of vigilante marijuana raids on private property may simply stem from a lack of legal clarity. Under the so-called “open fields doctrine” set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment does not protect undeveloped property from warrantless searches. As a result, police may be permitted to cut down private gardens without a warrant.

In the meantime, Lear has flourished, despite the concern among some local growers. But like most people in the Emerald Triangle, Trouette thinks the best thing for the locals would be for the feds to sort out all the confusion. “I think the federal government would do everybody a big favor,” he says, “by regulating this industry.”

TIME technology

Why Terrorists Love Twitter

Mosul Iraq ISIS
Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014 AP

ISIS and the challenge for social media sites

In 2011, the Somali Islamist group known as Al-Shabab took to Twitter. Its official handle taunted the group’s enemies, boasted of battlefield triumphs and shared images from the front lines of conflict zones. It sparred with political antagonists, rattling off missives in grandiose English. The terrorists—like the site’s less murderous users—used Twitter to share news and promote their brand. In 2013, a Shabab account live-tweeted commentary as allied fighters carried out a terrorist attack at a Nairobi shopping mall.

Terrorists love Twitter. That includes the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Sunni Muslim extremists whom the U.S. is targeting in an expanded military campaign. ISIS has emerged as the most sophisticated group yet at using the service to spread its bloodthirsty message. And when ISIS jihadists and tens of thousands of acolytes swarmed Twitter in recent months, it raised the question of how social media sites should respond when unsavory groups colonize their platform.

There are no easy answers. Social-media networks exist so users can share information; sites like Twitter are neither equipped nor inclined to police large numbers of rogue feeds themselves. And within the intelligence community, there is no consensus on whether the use of sites like Twitter as a propaganda tool hurts or helps U.S. interests.

To some observers, Twitter was derelict in allowing extremist accounts to flourish. “For several years, ISIS followers have been hijacking Twitter to freely promote their jihad with very little to no interference at all,” says Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which studies jihadi extremists’ behavior online. “Twitter’s lack of action has resulted in a strong, and massive pro-ISIS presence on their social media platform, consisting of campaigns to mobilize, recruit and terrorize.”

Others say it’s not so simple. “There is a case to be made for removing the content or removing the most prolific [jihadist] accounts online. Each time that happens, they had to rebuild their audience. It has a disruptive effect,” says counterterrorism expert Clint Watts, who has studied ISIS’s behavior online. But ISIS accounts may also, in some cases, be a boon to intelligence-gathering efforts. “Their braggadocio tells us what we don’t know about what’s happening in eastern Syria,” Watts says. “In Iraq they show us every one of their successes. There is value in that.”

For that reason, some government officials may prefer the accounts remain open. “There is some value to being able to track them on Twitter,” says William McCants, a former State Department senior adviser who directs the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. McCants recalls that a U.S. intelligence official described the site as a “gold mine” of information about foreign-fighter networks, better than any clandestine sources. The State Department is using Twitter itself, with a counter-propaganda campaign run through an account, Think AgainTurn Away. It tries to nettle ISIS and neutralize their recruiting.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment for this article. The site’s rules prohibit threats of violence, harassment and other abuses, and government agencies or law enforcement officials are able to request the removal of prohibited content. In 2013, it received just 437 such requests from governments worldwide; it received 432 in the first half of this year.

In recent months, Twitter has cracked down on some accounts, including those sharing macabre images or videos of the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. But it is not trawling for the content that some government officials believe has the greatest potential to convert potential conscripts. “This is not necessarily a bloody picture. It’s somebody telling you to go kill,” says Alberto Fernandez, coordinator of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, whose digital outreach team is responsible for the Twitter counter-messaging campaign. “That discussion is not being taken down by Twitter.”

It’s easy to see why terrorists flocked to the platform. Beginning in the mid-2000s, al-Qaeda has been organizing online through bulletin-board forums, which were largely password protected and sometimes required special contacts to gain access. Moderators would scrub signs of dissension. In contrast, Twitter is something of a digital town square—a free megaphone to reach a mass audience, easily accessible on smartphones and largely unmonitored.

As ISIS fighters began capturing vast swaths of Syria and Iraq this summer, its network of online organizers—there are around 30 key players, according to analysts who study global extremism online—tweeted about territorial gains, posting photographic proof of their conquests. They softened their hard-edged image by sprinkling in common humanizing touches, like pictures of meals and cute cat photos. And they set about trying to recruit more conscripts—including Westerners—to the cause.

It may seem incongruous; religious extremism is in large part a renunciation of modern society, while the social-media platform is both emblem and enabler of the networked world. But since it is impossible to scrub all pro-ISIS sentiment from Twitter, U.S. analysts are trying to use the service to piece together a better understanding of the terrorist group’s dynamics. Twitter’s decision to silence some accounts but not all is fine, McCants says, and watching the group latch onto a new account when a big one is blocked can be instructive. “When you knock one of them down, it’s interesting to see how quickly they reconstitute and who their earliest followers are,” he says. “Those are the guys that are plugged in.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Barack Obama’s Social Media Flame War Against ISIS

U.S. Department of State

As Islamic militants flood social media, the State Department has ramped up efforts to neutralize jihadist propaganda online

The video is grisly. It shows corpses crucified on makeshift crosses, and dead bodies being chucked into a ravine. Mosques explode. Masked assailants lash writhing victims and execute kneeling prisoners. A quartet of severed heads line a ledge, surrounding a decapitated body.

Titled “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ Land,” the film features grainy footage that looks plucked from the dark recesses of the Internet. Its tone is flecked with snark. “Travel is inexpensive,” a caption declares, “because you won’t need a return ticket!” But the low-budget aspect is by design. The video, first published on YouTube in late July, is a production of the U.S. State Department, which is ramping up its efforts to neutralize the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)’s success at recruiting over social media. The campaign includes a State Department-branded YouTube channel, which hosts videos that accuse the terrorist group of hypocrisy and war crimes against fellow Muslims. It includes a Twitter account, Think Again Turn Away, that links to stories about women and children harmed by the group. And it has a Facebook page dotted with gruesome images of bloodied civilians.

This digital battlefield has become a vital theater in the war on terrorism, and for the U.S. government, the front lines are the digital outreach team in a small State Department office, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which began operation in 2011 on orders from President Obama. With a budget of only $6 million, and about two-dozen staffers, the group is spearheading the campaign to combat the sophisticated propaganda ISIS is spreading on social media and Internet bulletin boards. Working in Arabic, Urdu, Somali and now English, its analysts comb the Internet for radical material, wading into everything from Twitter to Yemeni tribal forums to counter and rebut jihadist claims.

What these State Department staffers are looking for is an opportunity to “engage in our very particular brand of adversarial engagement,” says Alberto Fernandez, a former ambassador to Equatorial Guinea who serves as coordinator of the CSCC. (The center reports to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, who is a former managing editor of TIME.) Staff try to cast extremist activity in a negative light, tamping down the lure of jihad for ordinary people whose political grievances might draw them toward to groups like ISIS. Sometimes this entails direct confrontation, but such confrontations are not the group’s goal.

“Our target audience is not the extremists,” Fernandez says. “It’s the people the extremists are talking to, trying to influence. It’s people who have not yet become terrorists.”

The program reflects a recognition within the U.S. government that online propaganda is not only a potent way to promote terrorism, but also a necessary tool in preventing it. “There is a connection between what happens in the virtual space and what happens on the ground,” says Fernandez. “You can’t divorce one from the other.”

Which is why the U.S. is fighting to regain territory it has long ceded to extremists. Jihadists were early to grasp the power of technology to promote their cause, dating back to the grainy eight-track tapes that inspired foreign fighters to help roust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden used direct-to-camera proclamations, distributed by Al-Jazeera, to incite followers. “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote in 2005 to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

AQI was “the first group to do Internet outreach very effectively,” says Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and counterterrorism expert. Instead of austere sermonizing, Watts says, it used battlefield footage—IED explosions, gun battles with U.S. soldiers—to glamorize jihad. ISIS sprang from that group’s ashes, aping its strategy in the process. It even adopted AQI’s most macabre tactic. A decade before the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were murdered by a masked ISIS fighter, AQI militants, thought to be led by Zarqawi, beheaded the American contractor Nicholas Berg in a tape that presaged last month’s gruesome videos.

ISIS has refined social-media propaganda to a new level, emerging with “the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group,” said Matthew Olson, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who spoke about the threat at the Brookings Institution earlier this month. Its rise corresponds with the migration of digital jihadi activity from password-protected forums to open social platforms, which have low barriers to entry.

ISIS has a smartphone app, called the Dawn of Glad Tidings, and a propaganda arm, the Al-Hayat Media Center, that distributes videos glorifying jihad. The group’s media campaign is a mix of battlefield footage and lifestyle snapshots: jihadis cavorting in luxury buildings, lounging in restaurants or patrolling city streets. Amid the carnage, its fighters also tweet cat pictures and announce their penchant for Western products like Snickers and Nutella.”They’re as sophisticated as anybody out there in how they frame and how they use modern technology,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told CNN.

Much of the terrorist group’s work has taken place on Twitter. “2013 was the year of Twitter for Al-Qaeda and ISIS,” Fernandez says. Since May, more than 60,000 Twitter accounts have been set up to herald the group, including 27,000 since the murder of Foley last month, according to an analysis conducted by Recorded Future, a web analytics firm, for the British media outlet Sky News. ISIS has used the platform both to spread grotesque photos of decapitated heads and bloodied bodies—”jihad porn,” as government officials call it—and to recruit potential conscripts. As Twitter cracked down on some of the gory imagery, an ISIS adherent even called for the murder of the site’s employees.

In the meantime, many of the group’s members have fled the site, terrorism analysts say, for more obscure social-media platforms like Friendica, Diaspora and VK (a Russian social-networking site used by the Boston bombers). The U.S. still finds itself outmatched as it tries to suss out and rebut all this activity. “There is a Mount Everest of radicalizing material” on the Internet, says Fernandez. “There’s a small hill, a hillock, of counter-radicalizing material.”

It is CSCC’s job to push this counter-narrative to people before they are converted into extremists. The expansion of this effort to include English-language sites last year is a reflection of a growing threat. ISIS is filling out the ranks of its army by recruiting disaffected Muslims from around the world, including the West. It has lured more than 100 Americans to fight in its ranks, according to Texas Republican Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. One of them, a 33-year-old native Minnesotan named Douglas MacAuthur McCain, was killed in a battle in Syria last month, the first known American to die while fighting for ISIS. The FBI has arrested more than a half-dozen Americans en route to Syria to enlist in jihad.

But much of the digital outreach takes place in languages other than English. CSCC has 15 fluent Arabic speakers, four working in Urdu, two in Somali and just two exclusively in English. In Arabic, “the CSCC brand is pretty well established,” Fernandez says. In 2012, the Global Islamic Media Front, an Al-Qaeda propaganda outlet, warned participants in jihadist forums to be wary of CSCC’s outreach. The following year, a prominent jihadi created a knockoff State Department account and coordinated an effort to drown the U.S. effort with spam. Such interactions are “proof that we are annoying them, getting into their heads all the time,” Fernandez says.

These are small markers of success for a modest campaign whose overall influence is hard to gauge. It’s virtually impossible to prove that a potential jihadist was deterred from joining because of the U.S. messaging campaign. And as messenger, the U.S. government has obvious weaknesses. ISIS adherents have ignored the coterie of high-ranking clerics inveighing against the group’s treatment of fellow Muslims; it’s hard to imagine them listening to a U.S. government mouthpiece. “It is good that the State Department recognizes the importance of social media in jihadi recruitment,” says Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks global terrorism. “However, as the State Department’s ‘Think Again Turn Away’ Twitter account often engages in useless arguments with jihadists fighters and supporters, their efforts are not only ineffective, but also provide jihadist with a megaphone to voice their arguments.”

Fernandez acknowledges that it is difficult to calculate the impact of his cyber-warriors. “You can’t prove a negative,” he notes. But he says the frustration of its enemies is one way to measure the effort. Last week, when a prominent Yemeni journalist fired off a series of tweets critical of Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responded with a hashtag campaign that branded him a follower of CSCC. “They want to discredit him by linking him to us,” says Fernandez. “That’s a pretty strong recommendation.”

TIME 2014 Election

Surprise Twist in Kansas Scrambles Senate Fight

Greg Orman Kansas Senate
Independent U.S. Senate candidate Greg Orman poses with his wife Sybil at the Clint Bowyers Community Center in the west end of Emporia, Kans., Mark Reinstein—Corbis

A Democrat drops out of the Senate race, paving the way for an independent to take on vulnerable Republican incumbent Pat Roberts

Updated 4:20 p.m. E.T. on Sept. 4

The battle for the Senate could come down to Kansas, where a surprise contest in one of the country’s most conservative states has the potential to stymie the Republican bid to retake control of the chamber.

That unlikely outcome became a distinct possibility on Wednesday night, when Democratic candidate Chad Taylor withdrew from the race, paving the way for an independent challenger to take on GOP Sen. Pat Roberts. In a recent poll conducted before Taylor’s exit, Greg Orman, the independent, ran 10 points ahead of the embattled incumbent in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. The race also features a long-shot libertarian candidate, who could muddle the math even further.

Just a month ago, Kansas wasn’t on the radar for observers surveying the Senate map. Its voters haven’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since the Great Depression. Suddenly, a deep-red state in the Koch brothers’ backyard is shaping up as a potential political firewall for Democrats as they fight to stave off a GOP takeover.

So what’s the matter with Kansas?

Part of the problem is Roberts, 78, a three-term senator whose appeal to Kansans has worn thin. Normally a mainstream Republican, he has tacked to the right to head off a primary challenge, even voting against the farm bill in an agricultural stronghold. During a bruising campaign against Tea Partyer Milton Wolf, the New York Times reported that Roberts doesn’t maintain a home of his own in the state. He emerged from the primary battered, with a 27% approval rating that is six points lower than even Barack Obama’s in the state.

These weaknesses created an opportunity for Orman, a wealthy businessman running as a moderate reformer. Orman, who has never held elected office, has donated to both Democrats and Republicans. He advocates tax reform and reducing the regulatory burden on business owners. He talks about beefing up border security, but also supports immigration reform and a path to citizenship. He is a gun owner who wants to expand background checks to cover private sales. He supports abortion rights, but has spent much of his campaign extolling a brand of fiscal conservatism that plays well on the right.

His unexpectedly strong campaign has also benefited from broad disillusionment with the state’s political status quo. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011 and launched what he once dubbed a “real, live experiment” in Tea Party governance. He cut taxes, pruned the welfare rolls, slashed spending and forced the legislature into lockstep with his vision. But the state’s finances are a mess, the economy has sputtered and the moves have sparked a surprising backlash. (A RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Brownback trailing his Democratic counterpart, state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, by a few points.)

The lurch to the right has frustrated some conservatives, but Roberts was still running ahead of Taylor and Orman in a multi-way contest. Taylor’s surprise exit—which some Republicans believe was orchestrated by Democrats—frees up space for Orman to campaign as a fiscally conservative centrist. The independent possesses some crossover appeal, with the potential to stitch together both left-leaning voters and center-right Republicans who are fed up with the Tea Party. Orman has collected endorsements from more than 70 former Republican lawmakers in the state.

As for Roberts, he has been slow to recover his position after emerging from the primary. “Roberts has not been actively campaigning for about a month now,” wrote the Rothenberg Political Report‘s Nathan Gonzales. “The lack of a strong campaign infrastructure is one of the fundamental reasons why Roberts is in severe danger. He can’t count on the the traditionally red hue of Kansas in federal races to bail him out.”

Roberts got an unexpected boost Thursday when Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced that Taylor’s name would stay on the ballot because his withdrawal letter lacked a mandatory declaration that he was incapable of serving if elected. “The law is the law,” said Kobach, a Republican. In a tight race, the decision could siphon decisive votes from Orman.

Plus, the state’s hue certainly helps the Republican. Kansas remains as crimson as they come: Obama lost there by 22 points. Roberts has a massive fundraising advantage—his $1.4 million on hand dwarfs Orman’s $362,000—and his party is swinging into action to save his seat, dispatching top national strategists from Washington to oversee the stretch drive. But the race has emerged as a major September surprise.

If the GOP’s bid to retake the Senate withers and dies on the prairie, it would be one of the cruelest ironies imaginable.

TIME Immigration

Obama Weighs Risks and Rewards on Immigration Action

President Obama Delivers Remarks At The Department of Housing and Urban Development
U.S President Barack Obama Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The President is weighing whether to wait until after the midterms to move on immigration, after promising action at the end of the summer

President Barack Obama is weighing whether to postpone a self-imposed deadline to make unilateral changes to U.S. immigration laws as the midterm elections draw near.

The President is still expected to take executive action this year to provide temporary deportation protection and work authorization to potentially several million undocumented immigrants.

But with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the uncertain ramifications of revamping U.S. immigration law have spurred the White House to reconsider the timing of its announcement. Here’s what we know—and what we don’t—about a decision that could reshape the political landscape in 2014 and beyond.

When might Obama’s decision come?

It was originally supposed to be by the end of summer. On June 30, almost exactly a year after the Senate passed a bipartisan overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, Obama announced he had instructed cabinet officials to prepare reports advising him what executive orders he could legally issue to mend a broken system on his own. “If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours,” Obama said. “I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay.”

But Obama has backtracked from his original timeline in recent days. It’s now an open question whether the move will come before the calendar officially turns to fall on Sept. 22. “There is the chance that it could be before the end of the summer. There is the chance that it could be after the summer,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday. Obama’s advisers have yet to present any policy recommendations, which will precede a presidential decision.

Immigration activists and Democratic aides who have pressed Obama to use his executive authority say they now fear the White House may wait until after the midterms to act. “It seems like we’re losing the argument,” says one immigration activist who met with Obama this summer. A Democratic Congressional aide told TIME the White House seemed to be “getting cold feet” about its original timeline.

Why the delay?

Blame election season. Democratic campaign strategists believe that a sweeping move to grant deportation relief before November would imperil the reelection bids of several vulnerable Senate incumbents, and have pressed the White House to hold off until at least mid-November. The White House doesn’t want an executive order on immigration to tip tight races to its opponents. And the unresolved child-migration crisis at the southwestern border has further muddied a decision already fraught with political risks. But no matter the timing, Obama still intends to unilaterally reshape U.S. immigration law in the absence of Congressional action. “The president is determined to act,” Earnest said Tuesday. “That has not changed and it will not change.”

What policy options is Obama considering?

Obama’s exact plans are unknown. But he is weighing using his executive authority to grant work permits and deportation relief for several million undocumented immigrants, perhaps through expanding a 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Obama may also decide to reform immigration enforcement priorities, as well as to offer special protections for specific groups of workers, as business groups have sought.

What might be the political benefits of waiting until after the midterms?

Democratic campaign strategists and some White House officials believe that taking executive action on immigration would jeopardize Democratic Senators who are fighting to stave off challengers in conservative states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and North Carolina. Control of the Senate may hinge on the outcome of those races. “It would have the unhelpful consequence of putting the issue in the news in a way that doesn’t help Democrats, while also not accomplishing anything,” says a national Democratic strategist.

Of the most competitive Senate races this year, Colorado—which is home to a burgeoning Hispanic population—is perhaps the only one in which aggressive executive orders would be highly likely to benefit the Democratic candidate, Sen. Mark Udall. Democratic campaign strategists argue the move would not only endanger the party’s grip on the upper chamber, but also eliminate the diminishing chance that Congress passes a comprehensive overhaul in the near future. If a move “swings the election,” says the Democratic strategist, “that will set back comprehensive immigration reform for years.”

What might be the political benefits of acting now?

Immigration-reform advocates say that a bold move to protect millions from deportation would cement Democrats’ bond with increasingly frustrated Hispanics, giving the party an edge with the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group for a generation or more. And while it would almost surely help Democrats in 2016—as the creation of DACA did in 2012—it’s not necessarily clear that it would hurt in November.

In addition to thrilling Latinos, expansive executive action would incense conservative Republicans, and potentially incite the GOP’s anti-immigration wing to make damaging remarks that Democrats could wield as campaign cudgels. “It’s a winner coming and going,” says Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. “No matter what he does, the right wing is going to go bonkers,” Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters last week. “If he goes mild, he’ll energize the right, but he won’t energize the center and the left.”

What about splitting the difference?

A third option under consideration, according to White House aides, is that Obama announces some modest executive orders before the election, but holds off until mid-November to announce more sweeping components. This seems unlikely, however, because it minimizes the political rewards but not the risks. Republicans would still assail the President. The issue would still take center stage in the midterms. But Hispanics might view the move as a half-measure from a President who came into office vowing to make immigration reform a priority, but has mostly disappointed them since.

“You cannot, on the one hand, receive a community warmly and embrace them, and say that you are for them and that you’re ready to protect them,” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, “and on the other one turn your back on them when you think it’s not in your political self-interest.” Gutierrez has long urged his Democratic counterparts to be patient and let the process of coaxing Republicans to the table play out. In an interview Tuesday, he said it was time for Democrats to stop bowing to political considerations, and for the White House to live up to its commitment to Hispanics.

“I have absolutely no doubt that [Obama] wants to make a broad, bold and generous action,” Gutierrez says. “I hope that Democrats get the hell out of the way and let the President be the President we elected.”

—Additional reporting by Alex Rogers and Zeke J. Miller

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