Stories I’d like to see

The NRA playbook, Obama’s pot dilemma, and HSBC’s money laundering

In his weekly “Stories I’d like to see” columnist, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on

1. Getting the NRA’s massacre playbook:

In the wake of the Newtown, CT, massacre, we’ve been reading a lot about school lockdowns and other emergency drills. Here’s an idea for some original reporting about a different kind of emergency drill: Reporters ought to get sources inside the National Rifle Association, or people who deal with the organization, to reveal the playbook the NRA must have developed by now to make sure the group can swing into action whenever there’s an outbreak of mass gun carnage.

Is there an email or phone list in place so that the first crisis team conference call can be convened quickly? Who’s on it in addition to NRA staff? Gun company executives? Lobbyists? Pollsters? PR people?

Is there a set script for the initial comment (such as “Now is not the time to talk politics”) followed by a sequenced set of later responses? How does the response evolve from the first days into the first week and then the second? Who is designated to make decisions about when to start responding to press inquiries and whether to do the Sunday talk shows, who should be the spokespeople and what the talking points should be?

Are staffers on standby to connect “grassroots” gun rights adherents with the media—and is there a list of them for all 50 states so that the response can be local no matter where the next slaughter is?

Who is assigned to do the research to make the case that new gun laws wouldn’t have made a difference in this case, or that if more people were armed the bad guy never could have gotten away with it? Are there templated responses at the ready for shopping mall killings versus school killings?

Who is assigned to warn politicians who get overcome in a moment of weakness and stray from the NRA line in public statements by allowing that maybe the country needs to “have a discussion” about doing something about assault weapons and the capacity of gun magazines? Do the weak-kneed get warned immediately, or is the strategy to wait until the crisis passes?

The best way into this story is to get enough sources to frame a narrative of who at the NRA and among its allies did what in the hours and days immediately after the Newtown shooting. Failing that, I bet the modus operandi could be figured out by looking at the rhetoric and strategy deployed following the last several gun tragedies to see how it matches this one. There are enough incidents to review that a pattern will almost certainly become obvious, as Dave Weigel suggested in Slate on Monday.

2. The marijuana dilemma:

I’m frustrated by the absence so far of a really good report about the legal deliberations inside the Obama administration over what to do about the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state. Lots of stories have reported around the edges, but I haven’t seen one that has gotten inside the Obama Justice Department and White House to shine light on what has to be one of the most interesting, and no doubt unwelcome, quandaries the administration faces. President Obama may have told Barbara Walters in an interview last week that he has “bigger fish to fry” than to worry about pot smokers, but the issue isn’t that simple.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law. So how can an administration that would instinctively be against state initiatives that contradict other federal laws—suppose Texas passed a law nullifying parts of the Clean Water Act?—justify standing down and not moving in court to reaffirm that federal drug laws preempt state law? That’s exactly what the Obama Administration did when it didn’t like the Arizona legislature’s immigration statute, and in that case the statute went further than federal law rather than contradicting it.

Then again, how can an administration propelled to re-election in large part by a liberal base interfere in the liberalization of laws banning a product that some see as no more dangerous than alcohol, while needlessly ensnaring millions in a clogged criminal justice system?

Who in the Obama Administration is playing which parts in the debate? Are any decisions being floated among various groups, such as law enforcement types or criminal justice reformers? Is anything being poll-tested?

Then there’s the private-sector part of the story. Most large employers test new hires for evidence of illegal drug use and sometimes even test current employees at set intervals. The ostensible purpose is to screen for lawbreakers and, in some situations, for people whose drug use could affect job safety. (In fact, anyone with a federal contract is required to do drug screening.) But suppose you’re a private employer in Colorado or Washington state and the work your employees do is not the kind where marijuana use, even while not on the job, might affect workplace safety (assuming use of marijuana while not on the job could ever affect workplace safety). In other words, you run a newspaper or accounting firm, not a dynamite factory. With marijuana use now legal in those two states, if you insist on testing your workers for marijuana, can’t you now be sued for an invasion of privacy?

3. Are HSBC’s money-laundering executives too big to fail?

The implication—and in some cases, even the stated explanation—for why HSBC Bank was allowed earlier this month to settle its massive money-laundering case for a monetary penalty has been, as this New York Times report put it, that “criminal charges could jeopardize one of the world’s largest banks and ultimately destabilize the global financial system.” According to the Times, “Behind the scenes, authorities debated for months the advantages and perils of a criminal indictment against HSBC.”

However, in this and other stories, the focus has been on why the bank wasn’t indicted? Who cares about indicting a corporation? Is the corporate seal going to do time? Why weren’t executives who were responsible for the money laundering indicted? For prosecutors to have had a case worth a $1.92 billion settlement, they had to have had specific evidence, which means specific people knowingly committing criminal acts. So, why no criminal indictments? Could these allegedly criminal executives be so important to a stable “global financial system” that they’re untouchable? That would certainly add a new dimension to the notion of too big to fail.

Reporters needs to ask the prosecutors about that.

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.