What is the case against Wisconsin farmer Vernon Hershberger really about? It depends on whom you ask.
To hear the prosecution, it's about licensing, not raw milk: Hershberger, a dairy farmer hailing from the town of Loganville, is on trial this week for operating without three licenses. He's also accused of continuing to sell raw milk to members of his private club after he was ordered not to.
If convicted, the father of 10 faces more than a year in jail and more than $10,000 in fines.
Prosecutors say they aren't debating the safety of raw milk - and the judge in the case has pretty much banned all mention of the stuff in the courtroom. His defense team tells us that one trial spectator wearing a T-shirt expressing support for raw milk had to turn it inside out before he was allowed in the courtroom.
But activists say the case is about raw milk and much, much more.
Fundamentally, they say, it's about personal food freedom and the rights of farmers and consumers to enter into private contracts without government intervention.
"As a mother, I have the right to choose the nutritious foods that I want to feed my son. I don't want the government making that choice for me," says Jen Morrison, a member of Hershberger's Grazin' Acres private food buying club.
In addition to raw milk, she gets beef and poultry raised by Hershberger and his family. In return, she pays a $25 annual membership fee — considered an investment in the farm — plus the cost for each product she buys (such as a gallon of raw milk). Occasionally, her family volunteers on the farm.
Across the nation, private food clubs - where members claim an ownership stake in the farm - have become a popular way to skirt laws that limit or bar sales of raw milk. (The Food and Drug Administration bars the interstate sale of raw milk, but laws regulating intrastate sales vary from state to state.)
Club members argue that if you own a stake in the farm, then you're not technically buying or selling raw milk. But regulators aren't buying it: From California to Minnesota, prosecutors have cracked down on private food clubs selling raw milk.
Some food activists see these cases as an assault on all private contracts between farmers and consumers — which is why Hershberger's case has become a rallying point for the dozens of activists from around the country who've shown up in Baraboo, Wis., for the trial. They've set up camp across the street from the courthouse — in the Al Ringling Theatre, no less - where they're hosting a week of "Grow Your Own Food Freedom" events.
"I'm concerned that producers of other commodities — not just raw milk, but eggs, meat and produce — will start to put burdensome regulations on farmer's markets," says Wisconsin Raw Milk Association board member Margo Redmond, who has been at the trial.
But such fears are misplaced, says Susan Schneider, director of the LL.M. program in agricultural and food law at the University of Arkansas.
Raw milk has special status under the law, says Schneider, because of the public health risks involved. Though raw milk aficionados believe their drink of choice has extra nutritional benefits when consumed fresh from the cow, the FDA says pasteurization is needed to kill microbes that may linger in the milk.
"I really think that this case is about raw milk," Schneider says, "but even more specifically, it's about the right of the state to have some basic public health licensing requirements for food that is recognized as having some potential health problem." And that right, she says, is a pretty well-established legal principle.
Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, agrees. Just because regulators are cracking down on raw milk buying clubs, he says, doesn't mean that other ventures that allow consumers to buy food directly from farmers — such as community-supported agriculture, for example — are in jeopardy. Unlike CSAs, he notes, raw milk buying clubs were devised "as a way to dodge or avoid food safety regulations."
No one has gotten sick from drinking Hershberger's raw milk, notes Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the farmer in the case. So if no one's being harmed, he says, shouldn't consenting adults be allowed to make a private agreement about the foods they want to consume? "Do they have the right," Kennedy asks, "to be left alone?"
Nope, that's not the way the law works, says Hamilton. You can consent to whatever you want, he says, but it still "has to be legal."
With additional reporting in Baraboo, Wis., by Maureen McCollum of Wisconsin Public Radio.
For the first time, the U.S. government has acknowledged killing four American citizens in lethal drone strikes far outside traditional battlefields, confirming information that had been widely known but has only recently been unclassified under orders of the president.
Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday explaining that only one of the four dead U.S. citizens was explicitly targeted. Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric born in New Mexico, died in Yemen in September 2011 after an American drone fired on his vehicle. Holder said al-Awlaki had become a senior operational leader in al-Qaida's affiliate there, helping to direct an underwear bombing plot aimed at Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, and a separate, thwarted attack a year later involving bombs placed in printer cartridges in cargo planes.
Al-Awlaki's targeting required approval from several federal agencies and the highest levels of the U.S. government, Holder wrote, and appropriate congressional committees were briefed on the decision a full year before he was killed.
"The decision to target [al-Awlaki] was lawful, it was considered, and it was just," Holder wrote.
Three other Americans who have been killed under the drone program were not directly targeted. Samir Khan, an al-Qaida propagandist, died sitting next to al-Awlaki. And al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son died weeks later in a strike aimed at an outdoor café in Yemen.
The fourth person — Jude Kenan Mohammad — is much less widely known. A former North Carolina resident, Mohammad faced terrorism charges including conspiracy to provide support to terrorists and conspiracy to murder people overseas in 2009. A federal indictment from that year said Mohammad left the U.S. in October 2008, allegedly to travel to Pakistan to engage in violent jihad.
In his letter, Holder characterized the release of information as one step in "extensive outreach efforts to communicate with the American people." Members of Congress and national security experts across the political and ideological spectrum have called on the White House to be more transparent about its targeted killing program, particularly when U.S. citizens are on the so-called kill lists.
But the attorney general said some information would remain under wraps, including a still-classified document that sets out the "administration's exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities." He said lawmakers would get private briefings on that document, approved by the White House this week.
President Obama is scheduled to deliver an important national security speech Thursday at the National Defense University, which will cover the legal and policy framework for counterterrorism operations.
Public opinion about the scandals plaguing the Obama administration is decidedly mixed.
Republicans feel that the trio of controversies — concerning Benghazi, the IRS and the Justice Department snooping on media phone records — are evidence enough that President Obama is either running a government motivated by partisan politics, or is badly out of touch.
Democrats, however, are proving to be much more forgiving.
"These things are being used for political purposes," says Lois Yatzeck, a retired minister in St. Louis. "Obama's political foes are taking advantage of it."
Yatzeck's read on the situation is widely shared. Public opinion polls suggest that Republicans are paying much more attention to these matters and are much more likely to disapprove of Obama's handling of them. Democrats, meanwhile, have been more steadfast in support.
As a result, even as Congress and the rest of Washington has been consumed by these issues for more than a week, the president's approval ratings have yet to take any noticeable hit.
"Part of the issue is that people's opinion of the president is already baked in," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. "These are rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats, not the leaders in Washington, and yet we found this very large gulf between them."
Consider The Source
A walk along Delmar Boulevard reveals that many people are considerably skeptical about the current trio of scandals — and whether they should even be considered scandals.
The retail-and-restaurant stretch runs through University City, a heavily Democratic enclave just outside St. Louis near Washington University. Some people there suggest that the current controversies represent opportunism on the part of Republicans and conservative media figures such as Rush Limbaugh.
"It's the same thing as always," says bookseller Scott Bartlett. "The people I hear pointing fingers aren't right about anything."
To the extent that there have been abuses, as with the IRS targeting conservative groups for heightened scrutiny, Bartlett and others along Delmar shrug it off as business as usual.
Michael Kelley, a high school teacher in University City, says that he's inclined to share Bartlett's skepticism about Obama's political opponents. "There's no doubt that the other side of the aisle is taking every opportunity they have to take advantage of these things," he says.
But Kelley is troubled by some of the stories. He feels there are more questions yet to be answered, particularly in regard to the administration's handling of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, last September.
Still, Kelley says, "So far, I haven't seen a trail lead back to the White House."
Not One Simple Scandal
The fact that there are multiple controversies on the political radar helps to complicate matters. And these are not straightforward stories about sex or money-grubbing.
There's considerable lot of back and forth about these issues and their interpretation. Congressional Democrats may express outrage about the IRS, but in general they have been willing to cut Obama a good deal of slack, as was clear from their questioning of administration officials Tuesday in the Senate Banking and Finance committees.
The public as a whole is more inclined to react strongly to scandals when leaders of both parties say there's something serious to be upset about, says Adam Berinsky, an expert in public opinion at MIT. That's not happening, so far.
Even as more evidence comes to the fore, the minds of partisans may not be swayed by it, he says. That was the case in 1998, when Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with a White House intern.
"People pick their teams and stick with them," he says.
It's normal for partisans to defend the leader of their party and their party's brand. What's striking today, Berinsky says, is that so much more of the public thinks in strongly partisan terms than they used to, meaning presidential approval ratings barely budge in response to changing circumstances.
"As with so many stories these days, it comes down to partisanship," says Regina Lawrence, a journalism professor at the University of Texas who has studied reactions to scandals. "Partisan dynamics are so much stronger now even when they were during the Clinton years."
Should Have Known Better
If you cross the Missouri River from St. Louis, you come into St. Charles County, one of the richest sources of Republican votes in the state. Most of the people walking along the brick-paved Main Street of the city of St. Charles are Republicans and most of them are highly upset with Obama.
"People should be outraged," says dental hygienist Sylvia Stone. "People should be disturbed that Americans died in Benghazi and they blamed it on a video that had nothing to do with it."
While Democrats like Kelley and much of the media coverage has been concerned with the question of how much the president knew, Republicans say that ignorance is no excuse.
"The president saying I learned about it in the press — you're either incompetent or being dishonest," says Bob Sutton, a retiree visiting St. Charles from Pennsylvania. He says he believes it's the latter.
Watch The Independents
Obama was never going to gain much traction with either Sutton or Stone. Politically, he has to worry more about people like Robert Baker, a self-described independent.
He voted for Obama last fall but is "terribly disappointed" in the proliferation of scandals that have broken since.
"The president is our highest office and we hold it to a higher standard," Baker says. "Without knowing all the details yet, I would like to think he had his finger on what was going on around him, and it seems like he didn't."
Baker worries that most people aren't tuned in. "People tend to pay attention when it hits them in the pocketbook," he says.
Baker recently lost his job in the disaster restoration business, but he thinks most people are willing to cut the president some slack as the Dow Jones average rises and the economy picks up.
"With unemployment getting better and the housing market getting better, people are getting lazy and not paying attention," he says.
North Korea has sent a special enjoy to China, hoping to patch up relations between the two countries that have been on rocky ground over Pyongyang's nuclear program and its recent seizure of a crew of Chinese fishermen.
North Korea's Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, the head of the army's political bureau, has is in Beijing.
As The Christian Science Monitor put it: "Neither side made any official comment on the subject of their discussions. But Beijing has made little secret of its growing frustrations at North Korea's recent behavior."
According to the Monitor:
"Top Chinese leaders have also issued unprecedented public warnings to the young North Korean leader, who has been in power for 18 months. Last month, at the height of Pyongyang's saber rattling, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared pointedly that 'no one should be allowed to throw a region, and even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gain.' "
Choe's trip, The New York Times reports, "is North Korea's first serious dabbling in diplomacy after months of bellicose pronouncements, including threats to launch nuclear strikes at the United States and its allies. It also comes as Japanese officials set off fears of a policy discord with allies by signaling a willingness to open a greater dialogue, including possible summit talks, with North Korea."
Choe is the first senior North Korean official to go to China since August, the newspaper says.
After five marathon sessions debating 150 proposed amendments, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a landmark rewriting of the nation's immigration laws this week — and the bill emerged largely intact.
Three Republicans voted with the panel's 10 Democrats on Tuesday night to forward the bill to the full Senate. That strong showing followed a wrenching choice for Democrats on the committee: whether to risk shattering support for the bill by amending it to recognize equal rights for same-sex couples.
How It Played Out
It was the last day for the Judiciary Committee to make changes in the immigration bill, and senators in the so-called Gang of Eight who wrote that bipartisan legislation were worried.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had not yet ruled out bringing up his own amendment, which would give gay Americans the same right as everyone else to sponsor foreign-born spouses for green cards. Outside the Senate chamber, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Gang of Eight, warned of the possible impact of Leahy's amendment.
"It'll kill the bill. It'll kill the bill," he said. "We lose evangelicals. We lose the Catholic Church.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another Gang of Eight member, said he'd vote against the immigration bill if it recognized same-sex marriages.
And yet just as the Judiciary Committee was set for a final vote on the bill, Leahy defied the pressures to hold back his amendment.
"I'd like to turn to an issue very important to me and to many Americans who are suffering from discrimination based on who we, who they love," he said.
Leahy said he first wanted to hear what members of the committee had to say about his amendment, especially the two Democrats and two Republicans in the Gang of Eight. One of those two Republicans, Arizona's Jeff Flake, told Leahy adopting the amendment would mean the bill would not move forward. The other Gang of Eight Republican, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, agreed.
"It would mean that the bill would fall apart because the coalition would fall apart because no matter how well meaning you are, Sen. Leahy — and I know you are — there are a lot of folks supporting this bill who are not going to agree to redefine marriage for immigration law purposes," Graham said.
The two Democratic members of both the Gang of Eight and the Judiciary Committee were in a tougher spot: They could back Leahy's amendment and risk seeing the bill go down, or they could oppose it despite their strong support for equal rights.
One of them, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Leahy he had reached a difficult conclusion.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that what you're doing is the right and just thing, and I admire you for it very much, Mr. Chairman," he said. "But I believe this is the wrong moment, that this is the wrong bill."
The other Gang of Eight Democrat on the panel, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, said that as much as it pained him, he could not support an amendment if it brought down the bill.
"I'm a politician, and that means I have chosen my life's work within the constraints of the system to accomplish as much as good as I can," he said.
Steve Ralls, the spokesman for Immigration Equality, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian immigration rights, put it this way: "Democratic senators unfortunately caved to threats from their colleagues."
Ralls says he doesn't blame Leahy for ultimately withdrawing his amendment. And he says a Supreme Court ruling this summer could overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and make equal protection for same-sex married couples a matter of law.
"But senators last night had an opportunity to make sure that if the court ruling isn't good, that lesbian and gay families would still be treated equally under the law," he said. "It was a critical insurance policy, and senators failed to deliver."
The full Senate is expected to take up the bill next month. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a sharp critic of the bill, predicts that is as far as it will get.
"It may well have the votes to pass the Senate, but I do not believe this bill will pass the House of Representatives or become law," Cruz said.
Republicans may soon face their own dilemma: back the immigration bill and shore up support with Latinos or oppose it and risk further alienating those voters.