• Hillary Clinton Emails Said to Contain Classified Data

    July 27, 2015 // 10 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: 2016, Embassy/State

    hillary clinton

    Here’s the story behind the drive by the Inspector General of the State Department and the Intelligence Community Inspector General for the Justice Department open a full investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account while she held the position of secretary of state.


    Government investigators discovered classified information on the private email account that Hillary used while secretary of state, stating “unequivocally” that those secrets never should have been stored outside of secure systems.

    The inspectors general of the State Department and the nation’s intelligence agencies said the information they found was classified when it was sent and remains so now. Information is considered classified if its disclosure would likely harm national security, and such information can be sent or stored only on computer networks with special safeguards. The inspectors have not revealed which of Clinton’s emails contained classified data, though the State Department has redacted portions of email it has released, and the FBI demanded data in some emails pertaining to the security situation in Libya be withheld.

    Clinton has said for months that she kept no classified information on the private server that she set up. Her campaign said Friday that any government secrets found on the server had been classified after the fact.


    There are multiple holes in Clinton’s latest set of excuses.


    To begin, she has stated there was nothing classified on her server. It appears now there was. The source is not a partisan attack dog, but the State Department’s own inspector general and the intelligence community. She violated national security, which require cleared individuals, such as Hillary, to protect sensitive information. Exposing classified data is a crime; that is what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are accused of doing. It does not matter if the info can be proven to have reached the media or an adversary, the crime is the exposure itself, not the results.

    A person in Hillary’s position, and certainly with her claimed experience in government, should know what is and is not classified, sensitive or otherwise needs to be protected. In my own 24 years with the State Department, I saw that almost everything that reached the secretary’s office needed to be classified, either because of the contents itself, or because it was part of the tiny fraction of information that bubbled up that high. Of all the issues in the world, an adversary knowing what the secretary was personally focused on, or how the data was being presented to her, was valuable in its own right.

    Some/much of the information Hillary was dealing with originated within her inner circle, particularly email sent between her and her closest advisors that helped shape her decisions. It is the originating person that is charged inside State with assigning a classification. If Hillary’s staff did not assign a classification, well, then one was not technically included with the data. But that’s a fudge; it is the data itself that matters, with or without a label, and as part of the responsibility for holding a clearance a person is expected to make judgements to protect information. Hillary knew how sensitive the information was at times. It is a veneer of deniability.

    There have also been multiple public cases where the government has taken action against individuals because they “should have known unclassified” data “should have been classified” and thus protected. Google up those of TSA’s Robert MacLean, NSA’s Thomas Drake and, sadly, my own. All of us were punished, fired or threatened with jail over the alleged release of unclassified data that the government deemed ex post facto should have been considered classified. This is not speculation, it is precedent.

    Criminal? Maybe. Irresponsible? Likely. Not very presidential? Certainly.



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    Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • Clintons Earned $30 million in Past 15 Months

    July 25, 2015 // 12 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: 2016



    Hillary and Bill earned $30 million since January 2014, mostly for giving paid speeches, according to financial disclosure forms filed on Friday.

    Around $25 million of the total came from giving speeches, while Hillary Clinton earned around $5 million from her book. “The Clintons’ income puts them at the upper end of the top 0.1 percent of earners in the U.S. population,” notes Reuters.

    Show Me the Money

    Bill’s standard speech fee is $250,000, compared to $235,000 for Hillary. Bill all-time highest fee is $500,000 for one speech, while Hillary Clinton’s top-earning speech brought in $350,000.

    This is all on top of the funding for offices, travel expenses and whatever’s came to the Clinton’s out of the generous donations and friendly spending habits of the charity Clinton Global Initiative.

    It all shows how just how far the couple has come since 2001, when they left the White House and Hillary Clinton described the family as being “dead broke.” Since leaving the White House, the Clintons have earned at least $130 million in speaking fees.



    Jealous Much?

    But so what, right? This is America; people should get paid for speeches they give, and hey, if someone is willing to pay you half a million dollars for a one hour talk, why shouldn’t you accept that? There’s nothing illegal here, nothing criminal, and anyone who tries to paint all this money as anything wrong is just reciting the Repub attack points. Hah, maybe the Republicans are just jealous. Who the hell is gonna pay Ted Cruz even bus fare to speak?

    And that of course is the point. No one will pay Ted Cruz much, if anything, to speak, because Ted Cruz is a lousy investment. Hillary has a very good chance of being president in 18 months. And that of course is the point.

    I’ve heard Bill speak in person, and seen plenty of Hillary speeches on video. They talk pretty, good grammar and all. But like most politicians, they tend not to say much of significance. Nothing remotely controversial, just “global this” and “empower technology for future that.” Could it thus be that the real reason organizations are willing to pay out fantastic fees for that is because they are trying to buy off the next president, who, along with her spouse, seems to have the appetite of a hungry hyena to suck up as much money as she can?

    Who Pays?

    Who pays Hillary to speak? Since leaving the State Department, Clinton has given paid speeches to Goldman Sachs, Fidelity, the Carlyle Group, the National Association of Realtors and various pharmaceutical companies. All of these organizations have much business in front of the federal government at any time, and all depend heavily on lobbying to ensure they are regulated (or not) in accordance with their business interests.

    Anybody who tries to tell you these groups are paying out large amounts of money simply to hear what Hillary has to say today is selling snake oil. The groups are buying access and paying forward for favors and favorable consideration.

    And So What?

    Oh, right, but everybody does it. No, they don’t. The Clintons are in it deep. Besides, the everybody does it argument didn’t work when your Mom caught you smoking in 8th grade, and it certainly is too trite to invoke when something as important as the last shreds of integrity in the presidency of the United States is on the line.

    Then again, Americans, you get what you pay for.



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  • NSA Summer Camps Look to Recruit Them When They’re Young

    July 24, 2015 // 10 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: NSA, Post-Constitution America

    nsa summer camp

    Get to them while they’re young, and you’ll have them for life. Who said that? Was it Walt Disney? Willy Wonka? The director of the Hitler Youth?

    Maybe all of them, but it also applies to the NSA. Long a fan of generosity on undergrad campuses, handing out scholarships, grants and internships around the math and foreign language departments, the NSA is now reaching out to become the pedos of the national security state by sponsoring summer spying camps for kids.

    The New York Times tells us about a new National Security Agency cybersecurity program that reaches down into the ranks of American high school and middle school students to teach them the fine art of cracking encrypted passwords. “We basically tried a dictionary attack,” said one patriotic youth as he typed a new command into “John The Ripper,” a software tool that helps test and break passwords. “Now we’re trying a brute-force attack.”

    “Now, I don’t want anybody getting in trouble now that you know how to use this puppy,” one of the camp’s instructors, warned. Of course not. It’s all legal, right?

    Thanks to the NSA, 1,400 youths are attending 43 free overnight and day camps across the country as this summer the agency is making sure that middle- and high-school-age students are learning how to hack, crack and “defend” in cyberspace. The broader goal of GenCyber, as the summer camp programs are called, is to catch the attention of potential cybersecurity recruits and seed interest in an exploding field. No doubt generating a little positive mindspace among the impressionable couldn’t hurt, either, right?

    The NSA’s goal is to grow the program to 200 camps in all 50 states by 2020.

    And each camp is different, given the global reach of the NSA. At California State San Bernardino, the NSA camp open only to local Girl Scouts, and campers will build, program and fly drones. Campers at Norwich University in Vermont will put together their own computers. At Marymount University, visits to nearby NSA HQ break up classroom time. A camp run right on the NSA campus in Maryland will offer soccer, cooking, basketball, recycled art, painting, hockey, drama, board games and jewelry making in addition to hacking classes. At UC Berkeley, many of the students claim they don’t know who Edward Snowden, but they’ll learn about him soon enough — from the NSA — since current events are part of the curriculum.

    But it’s cool. “We’re not trying to make these camps something to make people pro-NSA or to try to make ourselves look good,” NSA’s director of the camps said. “I think we’ll look good naturally just because we’re doing something that I think will benefit a lot of students and eventually the country as a whole.”




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  • Wesley Clark Calls for Internment Camps for ‘Radicalized’ Americans

    July 23, 2015 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    General-Wesley-Clark

    Retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark on Friday called for World War II-style internment camps to be revived for “disloyal Americans.”


    In an interview on MSNBC in the wake of the mass shooting in Chattanooga, Clark said that during World War II, “if someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn’t say that was freedom of speech, we put him in a camp, they were prisoners of war.”

    (During WWII, the United States detained over 11,000 ethnic Germans in the U.S. The government examined the cases under the Alien and Sedition Acts individually in a form of limited due process, and detained relatively few in internment camps. However, over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were sent off to camps without any form of due process. Most Americans consider these actions along the most shameful abuse of government power and civil rights since the abolition of slavery. The United States continues to pay reparations to those interned.)

    Clark called for a revival of internment camps to help combat Muslim extremism, saying, “If these people are radicalized and they don’t support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine. It’s their right and it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict.”

    (It is unclear what “conflict” Clark is referring to, but we can assume it is the undeclared war on an idea, terrorism. Terrorism has existed roughly since the beginning of civilization, so the duration of any conflict against it seems open-ended.)

    Clark’s proposal appears to be based on the concept of targeting people for government scrutiny who are not “radicalized,” whatever that means, but who the government, or perhaps just Clark by himself, decides may become radicalized at some unspecified future date.

    “We have got to identify the people who are most likely to be radicalized. We’ve got to cut this off at the beginning,” Clark said. “I do think on a national policy level we need to look at what self-radicalization means because we are at war with this group of terrorists.”

    For those keeping score, Clark’s proposal would violate, at a minimum, the rights to free speech, due process and habeas corpus, and cruel and unusual punishment, all the while setting a precedent for “thought crime” in the United States.

    Here’s the interview. Please note how the MSNBC drone interviewer does not challenge Clark in any way:




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  • Meet You in Atlantic City: An Economic Fable

    July 21, 2015 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent


    As the New Economy starts to look more and more like the Depression Economy of the 1930’s, the divide between rich and poor clearer as businesses fade and fail, Atlantic City provides a layers of urban archaeology pointing where we’ve been and maybe where we’re going.

    We All Love Lucy

    Driving in on the older roads, there’s Lucy the Elephant. Not a real elephant of course, Lucy is instead a freakish wood and tin six story hollow statue. First built in 1881 to add value to some Jersey swampland, Lucy has been reincarnated several times after fire, neglect and storm damage. Along the way, she was used a tavern, a hotel, and for most of her life, simply an “attraction.” As owning a car, and the family driving vacations that accompanied ownership, became egalitarian rights in the 1950’s and 60’s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of freaks, and spectacles such as the world’s largest ball of twine.

    Lucy—and Atlantic City—set the trend well into the early 1970’s. Between 1947 and 1973 actual incomes in the U.S. rose at the same level for everyone, more or less evenly spread across the societal spectrum. In 1932 Detroit produced 1.4 million cars, in 1950 it rose to eight million, then peaked at twelve million in 1973. America was a developing nation, in the best sense of that word. Yet as the U.S. economy changed, money began to flow out of the working class pockets that fed Lucy. From 1973 to 1993 the top one percent of Americans saw income grow eighty percent, and by 1989 the one percent owned forty percent of U.S. wealth. Atlantic City hurt. The famous Boardwalk (remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City) became a crime scene, too dangerous for casual tourists, and drugs took over for tourism. It wasn’t different than the rest of America, just more intense.

    Atlantic City Rolls the Dice on Legalized Gambling

    Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City, some thirty years ago, things had again started to change. It was in the midst of a hyper national economy that gambling was legalized, and money poured into the area. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants, and local business owners scrambled to find workers even as they considered early retirement based on the soaring value of the land they had held for generations. Everyone and everything felt alive, and billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

    Thirty Years Later, Does the Bet Pay Off?

    Thirty years later, a visit to Atlantic City once again reminds that life there isn’t any different than the rest of America, just more intense. On a twenty-story hotel tower, you can read the words “Hilton” in dirt shadow where the sign was removed as the place slammed shut. Trump Plaza, nothing if not a monument to excess and hubris from someone once admired as a business magician and pathetically now a presidential candidate, even before it closed was much of a caricature of elegance as the man himself. When I stayed there, the pillows smelled of sweat, the corner of doors were chipped, many areas needed paint and most of the bars and restaurants were as lonely as the former Greyhound bus terminal a few blocks away. People who appeared homeless harmlessly wandered in and out of the casino, itself tawdy and too dimly lit to inspire fun. It was like the air had been let out of the place.

    Outside along the Boardwalk, the famous rolling chairs are pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the City. Lots of people still took rides, but it seemed that paying the workers to push you while you sat felt cheap and sad, just a step aside of pushing dollars into the g-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk. It felt too much like buying and discarding someone’s self respect to be considered fun. The swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers had more shuttered than open stores. The family restaurant I worked in thirty years ago is now a tiny dollar store run by a man angry that I was just looking for old times’ sake. Plenty of “We Buy Gold” and pawn shops nearby, however. Though touted as a nouveau cuisine destination in ads, the only lines I saw were for people challenging the economics of the $7.98 all-you-can-eat buffet.

    Where to Lucy?

    There are always things that hint at optimism. Atlantic City survived Hurricane Sandy with little damage. The Hard Rock was doing good business with three dollar Miller Lite’s. Caesar’s had set up a glitzy room for Asian gamblers, complete with Chinese-speaking dealers and table games from Macau. Everyone turned from the old guys pushing the rolling chairs to see where the young guy running across the hot sand carrying two ice creams cones was headed.

    The average American worker never earned as much again as in the peak year of 1973. Poverty rates also reached a historic low in 1973 and have risen steadily thereafter. One out of five American kids now lives in a household that cannot feed itself. Aside from it all, Lucy the Elephant still stands her post, unblinking and silent. She looks out over the Boardwalk, maybe America itself, and wonders where we are all headed.







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  • Kidneys For Sale in Kurdish Camps: Iraq’s Displaced Selling Body Parts For Food?

    July 20, 2015 // 1 Comment

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Military

    kidney



    I write and speak about Iraq frequently, and strongly oppose U.S. military (re-)intervention there. People often respond by saying “But we have to do something, shouldn’t we do something?”

    I now have a good answer: stop this. The flood of internally displaced people into Iraqi Kurdistan is increasing human trafficking and illegal organ sales.

    “The increase in the number of displaced people in the Iraqi Kurdish region is the main reason why the amount of human trafficking and trafficking of human organs is increasing,” Tafkah Omar, who heads the legal department of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Human Rights Commission, told NIQASH. “The displaced people here are marginalized and they may be more willing to accept the fact that they could sell their own organs, or their relatives’ organs, in order to cover costs of their basic needs,” she noted, before adding that it was also important to consider all forms of human trafficking brought on by the ongoing conflicts in the area, including forced prostitution and child labor.

    “There are fears that gangs might take more advantage of displaced people here,” she said. “The security situation is such that it is still very difficult to prevent human trafficking of all kinds.”

    The sale of a kidney requires middlemen, who must both know a seller and a buyer. It is thought that middlemen for the buyers travel from Baghdad and contact middle men for the sellers in Iraqi Kurdistan. The sellers will typically receive around US$4,100 for a kidney. The middleman then sells the kidney for about $20,000 or more.

    “Over the last couple of months the police haven’t managed to arrest anyone on these kinds of charges,” stated an activist.

    “When we don’t have any clear evidence, we cannot do anything about the organ sales,” a police spokesperson responded. “It is highly likely that these middlemen have found alternative ways of doing business.”


    (Image is representative and is not from Iraq)



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  • Fighting Pirates is Cool

    July 18, 2015 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Military

    pirates-of-the-caribbean

    So among the many innovations of the War on Terror and the 21st century is a return to the fun of the 19th century when our mariners had to fight pirates.

    You know the Marine Hymn, the line “…to the shores of Tripoli”? That referred to some of the earliest fights the Marines got into, against pirates in the Mediterranean, protecting a young America’s commerce abroad.

    The endless chaos of failed states that has accompanied the War on Terror has sent pirates back out on to the open seas, particularly near the Horn of Africa, off the Somali coast. We all remember the movie Captain Phillips, right? Somali pirates in small boats rush cargo ships and oil tankers, hoping to scramble aboard and take hostages, ransoming the ship back to its owner while plundering the cargo.

    Commercial shipping companies have thus taken to hiring mercenaries, er, security contractors, typically ex-military from the U.S., UK, South Africa and the like, to protect their vessels. Have a look at a typical workday for them in the video. Note the image of the side of the ship around 0:34; there are rolls of barbed wire attached to the hull to prevent boarders from seizing the doubloons. Of course, that would have made Captain Phillips about a three minute movie.





    Here’s something else interesting.





    Apparently due to some countries’ laws, ships cannot bring weapons into port. So, given that the shipping business is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and rifles are worth a few hundred, the mercs often toss their weapons overboard. It is not clear how they acquire new ones for the trip home, but it seems to be a system that works for them. Of course the weapons could be stashed in some remote part of these huge ships and the tossing scene might be just for show…

    Avast mateys, here there be pirates! Arghhhhhhhhhh!



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  • Jihadist 17-Year-Old Faces Prison for Tweets about Encryption and Bitcoin

    July 17, 2015 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    ISIS-Using-Bitcoin

    In the next release of statistics from the FBI and DHS about how many terrorist plot they have foiled, remember this one is included.

    A 17-year-old Virginia teen, Ali Shukri Amin, faces up to 15 years in prison for contributing to Coin Brief and for Tweets about encryption and Bitcoin. He recently pleaded guilty to providing material support to Islamic State for all that. Amin was a high school honors student in suburban Virginia until his arrest.

    Dana Boente, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said the youth’s guilty plea “demonstrates that those who use social media as a tool to provide support and resources to ISIL will be identified and prosecuted with no less vigilance than those who travel to take up arms with ISIL.”

    According to the defendant’s signed “Admission of Facts,”, Amin joined Twitter last June and acquired some 4,000 followers and tweeted about 7,000 times.


    His Crimes

    Here’s what, according to Amin’s court documents, landed him in prison:

    — An article he wrote explained what Bitcoins were, how the Bitcoin system worked and suggested using a new Bitcoin wallet, which keeps the user of Bitcoins anonymous. The article included statements on how to set up an anonymous donations system to send money, using Bitcoin, to the mujahedeen.

    — Amin tweeted that IS needed an official website and that IS should stop releasing propaganda “in the wild” and instead should consider using JustPaste.it.

    — Also also Tweeted this link about Bitcoin.

    — According to the government, Amin, “Through various tweets, provided information on how to prevent a website from being taken down, by adding security defenses, and he solicited others via Twitter to assist on the development of the website.”

    — On his blog, Amin “authored a series of highly technical articles targeted at aspiring jihadists and ISIL supporters detailing the use of security measures in online communications to include the use of encryption and anonymity software, tools and techniques, as well as the use of the virtual currency Bitcoin as a means to anonymously fund ISIL.”

    Amin, who apparently never left his suburban home, is also accused of “radicalizing” an 18-year-old Virginia youth who later traveled to Syria. Amin admitted that he helped the boy get a mobile phone, assisted him with travel, gave him a ride to the airport in his parents’ car and pointed him generally to where he would find IS supporters in Turkey.


    Let’s Be Afraid

    Critical to understanding how terrifying this arrest and prosecution are is understanding that Amin is going to jail not for what he wrote, but to whom he wrote to and, apparently, what he was thinking when he wrote it.

    In other words, information, some of it amazingly technical, is splattered all over the web about Bitcoin, security, encryption and the other topics the high school kid wrote about. The processes are the same whether the money is going to your cool Kickstarter indie band project, or to Islamic State. Amin did not add anything special to the huge pile of info out there.

    Instead, he was busted because he Tweeted and blogged openly in the direction of Islamic State. He was thinking nice thoughts about IS while doing it. There is no indication that IS asked him to do this, or responded to him, or even acted on any information he posted.

    It is worth noting that IS, like you, could Google “Bitcoin” or any other of Amin’s subjects and read as much material as they wished. In such a case, would those websites also have some culpability toward supporting terrorism?

    The limited assistance to the other boy in traveling notwithstanding, Amin seems to be headed to Federal prison for a thought crime tied up in violations of his First Amendment rights.

    Keep that in mind before you blog, Tweet, update your Facebook or click on some of the links above, because the Feds are watching.




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  • New Law Says Web Sites Would Have to Inform Law Enforcement about Readers’ ‘Terrorist Activity’

    July 16, 2015 // 14 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State

    1984


    Social media sites such as Twitter and YouTube would be required to report “terrorist” videos and other content posted by users to federal authorities under legislation approved this past week by the Senate Intelligence Committee.


    The measure, contained in the 2016 intelligence authorization, still has to be voted on by the full Senate. The measure applies to “electronic communication service providers,” which includes e-mail services such as Google and Yahoo. “Posted content” would likely also apply to readers’ comments, and in theory to authors’ postings such as this one.

    Companies such as Twitter have recently stepped up efforts to remove terrorist content in response to growing concerns that they have not done enough to stem whatever the government deems propaganda. Twitter removed 10,000 accounts over a two-day period in April. Officials want more. “In our discussions with parts of the executive branch, they said there have been cases where there have been posts of one sort or another taken down” that might have been useful to know about, a Senate aide said.

    The snitch bill is modeled after a federal law — the 2008 Protect Our Children Act — that requires online firms to report images of child pornography and to provide information identifying who uploaded the images to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center then forwards the information to the FBI. Of course actual images of child porn are pretty straightforward to notice, exploit innocents and involve no legitimate protected speech.

    But otherwise, sure, it’s the same thing. Statement: I Like Terrorism = Child Rape Images.

    Industry officials privately called the new law a bad idea only because it sounds like an expensive hassle for them. “Asking Internet companies to proactively monitor people’s posts and messages would be the same thing as asking your telephone company to monitor and log all your phone calls, text messages, all your Internet browsing, all the sites you visit,” said one official.

    Wait, isn’t that what we’ve been told the NSA has been doing to us since 9/11?

    Still, national security experts who will likely personally profit from the measure say it makes sense. “In a core set of cases, when companies are made aware of terrorist content, there is real value to security, and potentially even to the companies’ reputation,” said Michael Leiter, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, now an executive vice president with Leidos, a national security contractor. “Rules like this always implicate complex First Amendment and corporate interests. But ultimately this is a higher-tech version of ‘See something, say something.’”

    But what about those nasty First Amendment issues?

    “The intelligence bill would turn communications service providers into the speech police, while providing them little guidance about what speech they must report to the police,” said Gregory Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “The natural tendency will be to err on the side of reporting anything that might be characterized as ‘terrorist activity’ even if it is not. And their duty to report will chill speech on the Internet that relates to terrorism.”


    America: A nation of snitches, watching each other, reporting whatever thing we think is suspicious or terrorism. To The Authorities. But it’s for our own good, right Citizens? I think I saw a Twilight Zone like that. No, wait, it was the McCarthy Era, sorry.



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  • My Interview on Afghan-Taliban Talks: ‘Terrorists or not, labels less important than stopping war’

    July 15, 2015 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    reagan

    I had a chance to sit down with RT.com to talk about the peace talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban that are expected to start again after Ramadan ends. The negotiations are taking place after more than a decade of war. Here’s what we said.

    RT: Why is the Afghan government negotiating with Taliban terrorists in the first place?

    PVB:As a former diplomat, I think it’s critical people do talk. Look, this war has gone on for fourteen years between the US, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Afghans – the whole gang. There has got to be a way to bring it to a conclusion, and since the US has failed militarily to bring it to a conclusion, really the only answer now is some form of negotiation. Terrorist or not, the labels are less important than the idea of stopping this war.

    RT: The talks in Pakistan were said to have been very constructive, with negotiators reportedly even hugging each other afterwards. Can this diplomacy really bring peace to Afghanistan?

    PVB: I think the word “peace” is a little ambitious at this point of time. I prefer the word “resolution”. We are going to have a hard time saying this is a war that was won, or a war that settled something. But I think what we need now is to speak of resolution, a way for the US to disengage, a way for the Afghan government and the Afghans in the Taliban to talk to one another and try to work something out that will benefit the Afghan people.

    RT: US-led occupation forces ran the show in Afghanistan for 13 years. Were they even trying to make peace with the Taliban?

    PVB: It’s a good question and one I think people like you and people like me have been asking for all these years. We’re going to have to take a deep breath and say that it’s good that the negotiations have started, even though history would judge poorly the fact that it took all these years and all these deaths to get us to this point.

    RT: What about a military solution here? Has the US finally understood it’s not going to work?

    PVB: It took Washington a good part of those years to realize there is no military solution, but I’m sad to say it took Washington even more time to understand that it was going to have to negotiate with the people who are on the battlefield. I think that mindset of having to negotiate with “the enemy” was really a harder victory to achieve in Washington than the idea that the military solution wasn’t going to work.

    RT: Could talks with the militants have started sooner?

    PVB: Absolutely. They could have started much sooner, they could have started back in 2001. The US initial push into Afghanistan was actually very successful. The Taliban was driven out of all the major cities, they were driven up into the mountains, into the caves, into hiding and at that point of time I think there was in fact a negotiated political solution that might have avoided all the years of war. There were points no doubt along the way when some type of negotiations may have been possible. That’s all water under the bridge; it’s blood on everyone’s hands but again we are going to take a deep breath and say “Thank goodness, we finally got to the point where we are sitting down at a table rather than facing off across the battlefield.”

    RT: There’s also the threat posed by Islamic State in the region. There are reports that the group’s leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan has been killed in a US drone strike. The terrorist organization has said it wants to expand in the area. Who’s there to stop them?

    PVB: Islamic State has something to do with it, but perhaps in a different way. Certainly no one wants to see IS entering the conflict in Afghanistan. More people with more guns are not going to make anything better. But I suspect part of the motivation is to allow the US to focus more on IS in Iraq, in Syria and other places. The Afghan war is over; everyone knows that, it’s a matter of figuring out the right way to bring America’s role to some form of resolution.

    RT: Could IS be possibly welcomed in Afghanistan?

    PVB: IS has the potential to establish a foothold there. Keep in mind Afghanistan shares a huge border with Pakistan, so infiltration is not going to be physically a very difficult thing, and the Taliban have often welcomed outside help in their struggle. But at the end of the day I don’t think the Taliban have much interest in sharing power with IS, I don’t think the Taliban would have much tolerance for IS setting up any kind of permanent shelter there and I don’t think the Taliban at this point see themselves wanting to give away their successes against the US by giving America yet another reason to kick the war in Afghanistan up a notch. I suspect IS’s welcome in Afghanistan would be relatively short.



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  • Casinos Fail Old Industrial Towns

    July 14, 2015 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Economy, Minimum Wage

    sands casino


    It wasn’t just a business, it was a way of life– what residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania referred to simply as “The Steel”– a mill once America’s second largest steel producer with 31,500 souls working in a single facility.


    The Mill

    The mill made the steel for the Empire State building and the Golden Gate Bridge, and for WWII warships. After cheap imports flooded the United States in the 1980s, the Bethlehem Steel facility closed, leaving behind a mile-long scar of rusted out buildings people call the brownfields, along the Lehigh River. Allentown, Billy Joel’s bitter saga of industrial decline, name-checked the town.


    The Promise of Legalized Gambling

    So as soon as Pennsylvania legalized casinos in 2004, Bethlehem scrambled for one of the first, and won. Symbolically, Las Vegas’ Sands corporation would build right on top of the old mill. Everyone hoped the casino would replace a decent portion of the jobs lost when The Steel left. But by 2014, there were only 2,200 positions at the casino, plus 700 at leased businesses inside. Was a casino really the answer?

    Even those new jobs didn’t come for free. Roads, some $10 million worth, had to be built or repaired to make it easier for out-of-towners (New York is only 75 miles away) to reach the casino. The city added to its police force. Since the casino was located outside the downtown business district, the city paid for a shuttle bus to try and draw players to their shops. But the casino had its own retail mall competing with anything local. No one should “plan on a casino to bring about urban renewal,” said a Wynn Casinos property manager in nearby Philadelphia, “because that’s not what casinos do.”


    The House Always Wins

    Still, there was money to be made in Bethlehem. Casino profits, of course, were repatriated to the owners in Las Vegas. Pennsylvania requires casinos to pay a 55 percent tax on revenues, but only four percent of that goes to the host community. For Bethlehem in 2013, that totaled $9.5 million, not game-changing money for an area so economically devastated for so long. Baltimore, an early adopter of casino gambling as an economic resurrection strategy, has seen similar results. In Atlantic City, the first major destination outside Las Vegas to feature legalized gambling, four major casinos closed in the past year.

    Bringing in a casino is about jobs and money. Jobs created statewide in Pennsylvania via gaming do not even equal the number lost in Bethlehem alone. As of 2013, Pennsylvania casinos directly employed only 17,768 people, leaving significant questions about the role of gaming in lifting America’s devastated rust belt towns out of unemployment-driven malaise.

    As for money, a report notes that after some initial successes, revenues in Pennsylvania from gaming declined by 2013. Statewide, casinos did contribute about $81 million in taxes last year. However, it is unclear how much of the revenue behind those taxes came from local residents, what might be called churning rather than creation, a back-door tax on those ill-prepared to lose money at the slots (affluent people visit casinos less often than poorer people do.) One group of frequent visitors who have found a way to beat the house come from New York’s Korean community; they sell the promotional meal vouchers from the casino on the black market.

    Competition is a serious problem, as new casinos open in surrounding states. For example, New Jersey is considering a casino at the Meadowlands, only 30 minutes outside New York City, which will pull many away from Bethlehem’s new bright lights. Pennsylvania is also among the states with the highest casino tax rate in the nation, raising further the question of market cannibalization should gaming corporations seek out lower rates in adjoining states. Casino revenues nationwide have not recovered their 2007 peaks, and Moody’s projects a drop through 2015, cutting industry earnings by as much as 7.5 percent.


    Don’t Gamble if You Can’t Afford to Lose

    Only a generation ago, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania had a steel mill employing tens of thousands of people at good wages. Including benefits, an average union steelworker made $26.12 per hour then, the equivalent of $40.66 today. It was enough to create one of the most powerful economies on earth, supported by a robust middle class driving demand for housing, cars, everything. They could afford to gamble a bit on yearly vacations, too.

    The typical casino worker today in Bethlehem makes $10-12 an hour. Many are part-time. They labor in the shadow of the mill that helped build the Empire State building and the Golden Gate Bridge, a new way of life that may flounder on a bad roll of the dice.



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  • DS Deedy Update: Shooting in Hawaii Now Headed to Third Trial?

    July 13, 2015 // 5 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State

    deedy with lawyers


    I didn’t realize that it had been almost two years since we had an update on the Chris Deedy (center in the photo) case, and a lot/not much has transpired. Let’s catch up!

    Recap

    For those new to the story, in 2011 State Department Diplomatic Security Special Agent Christopher Deedy was briefly in Hawaii protecting then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Deedy, off duty, shot and killed a local man, Kollin Elderts. From there it gets complicated; allegations and denials of alcohol involvement, an inconclusive surveillance tape, the question of whether the shooting was in self-defense or not, it goes on, now heading into a fifth year of legal stuff. More background here.


    Two Trials So Far, No Conviction

    Since the shooting there have been two trials.

    Deedy’s first murder trial in the summer of 2013 ended with the jurors deadlocked on a murder charge. Hawaii Judge Ahn found that there was no evidence to support manslaughter and so did not allow the jurors to consider that lesser charge. Ahn then reversed herself in the retrial last summer (2014), allowing the jurors to consider manslaughter as well as other lesser charges, including assault. The jurors returned a not guilty verdict on the murder charge but were deadlocked on manslaughter (manslaughter is “the crime of killing a human being without malice aforethought, or otherwise in circumstances not amounting to murder.”)

    Third Trial to Come?

    Deedy’s lawyers filed motions to block the third trial; the prosecutor in Hawaii wanted it to go through. Judge Ahn rejected the key defense motions and allowed the trial to proceed. Deedy’s attorney instead will present the same motions to dismiss, the ones Ahn has already rejected, to the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

    If the Appeals Court also rejects the motions, a third trial could commence in the fall. If the court grants the motions, the Deedy criminal case is over and he is a free man.

    I could not locate any information on the status of a civil suit by Kollin Elderts’ family.

    Throughout the four+ years since the shooting, Deedy has been out on bail, still employed by the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Since a condition of his bail is that he cannot carry a firearm, he has been assigned to some sort of unspecified desk duty on full salary.


    Last Words… For Now

    The Deputy City Prosecutor Janice Futa argued in favor of a third trial. “Justice demands for Kollin Elderts and his family that we pursue this case,” she said.

    Deedy’s lawyer said the state has had enough chances. “This is not about justice. This about trying to convict Agent Deedy of something.”



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  • Homeless Guy’s Sign, Four Blocks from Koch Brothers’ Apartment

    July 11, 2015 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent

    2014-10-20 20.45.22

    There’s a homeless man I see from time to time near where I live. He sometimes begs for money. Sometimes people give him food, sometimes he forages in the trash. There’s his sign, written on the lid of an old cooler.

    In America’s richest city, four blocks from where the Koch Brothers live, in a nation that has allocated $1.57 trillion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including $92.3 billion in fiscal year 2014, we don’t have much to offer this guy.

    There are about 3,357 unsheltered people living on New York’s streets, like the guy who wrote the sign shown here, a six percent rise from 2013 to 2014. There are luckier ones. New York has 53,615 people who live in homeless shelters.

    At the same time, overall property values for those who have places to live rose 10.4 percent across New York. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of New Yorkers with a net-worth of over $30 million rose higher than any other city in the world besides Singapore and Hong Kong,

    We are willing to send humanitarian aid to Iraq and Syria, but not to our homeless in America. There’s your story for today.




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  • George W. Bush Charged $100K for Speech at Wounded Veterans Event

    July 10, 2015 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    George Bush Mission Accomplished

    Talk about creating your own job opportunities!

    Former president George W. not only started a bunch of wars that produced a bunch of wounded veterans, he pulled in mucho dinero making a speech for a wounded vets’ charity group. Hey, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! (Unless you lost both hands in Iraq or something like former Marine Eddie Wright, below, and can’t.)

    Bush Bills $100k

    Class act and former president George W. Bush, who still has all his limbs, billed a charity for wounded military veterans $100,000 in speaking fees in 2012. Bush charged Texas-based Helping a Hero that amount in 2012. The organization also provided Bush with private jet travel to Houston at a cost of $20,000.

    And in a gesture that would make a Clinton proud, Laura Bush pocketed $50,000 after appearing for the group in 2011.

    “It was great because Bush reduced his normal fee of $250,000 down to $100,000,” said Meredith Iler, Helping a Hero’s former chairwoman. That’s actually not even true; a recent report by Politico said Bush’s fees typically ranged between $100,000 and $175,000 during those years.

    Helping a Hero, when it is not paying out six figure speaking fees, also fundraises for homes for military veterans. It focuses on men and women who suffered in Bush’s own two signature wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. But be sure to see more on how the wealthy charity folks don’t help veterans while enriching themselves, below.



    Few Regrets

    Former Marine Eddie Wright, a former member of Helping a Hero’s board, criticized the payout.

    “For him to be paid to raise money for veterans that were wounded in combat under his orders, I don’t think that’s right,” Wright said. “You sent me to war. I was doing what you told me to do, gladly for you and our country and I have no regrets.”

    George W., too, has few regrets. He told one reporter he plans to “replenish the ol’ coffers” on the lecture circuit. A spokesperson for Bush confirmed the payment and added, “President Bush has made helping veterans one of his highest priorities in his post presidency.”

    “But it is kind of a slap in the face,” added Wright, who lost both hands during a rocket attack in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004.

    BONUS: Fallujah is now fully-controlled by Islamic State. Speaking opportunities for Bush are limited there, but in other ways I’m sure IS would love to see him drop by.



    Wealthy Hero Charity Mostly Helps Themselves, Not Vets

    The great Americans at Helping a Hero have come under criticism for, well, helping themselves.

    In the last seven years, Helping A Hero provided 65 homes across the nation for wounded war veterans. So that’s a little better than nine a year. They must also be nice homes — the charity pulled in $4 million in donations just last year. A little math says each home must either be worth close to $450,000, or the money is going somewhere else, maybe to speeches and private jets.

    Also, a number of veterans who have received these homes, as well as former board members and workers in the organization, have complained about a lack of financial transparency. They have cited mortgage contracts with special stipulations such as requiring new home­owners to promote the organization over a 10-year period or risk losing their houses. And they say Meredith Iler, Helping a Hero’s now-former chairwoman, pressured veterans and their wives to sell chemical-free beauty and health care products made by a company called Arbonne International.

    Arbonne uses home parties to sell products through direct sales, like Mary Kay or Avon. And guess what — the company awarded Meredith Iler a free Mercedes-Benz after she rose from sales consultant to regional vice president in 90 days based on her “team’s” sales.

    Helping a Hero is also now the subject of a pending lawsuit to stop the charity from reclaiming a house from the family of a blind soldier who died after receiving the property.

    Retired Army Colonel Karen Lloyd, the organization’s former public relations chairman who resigned from the board, questioned $7,500 in expenses listed on the balance sheet for the 2011 “Rodeo Queens for the Troops” Christmas party that she helped organize. She said the venue, barbecue, pies and candy canes were all donated, but she didn’t know who paid for the expensive Arbonne gift bags handed out. Lloyd further alleges “waste, fraud and abuse” of charity funds, “illegal raffle ticket sales” by the charity, and Iler “benefiting personally from the charity’s credit card.”

    Iler denies everything. Of course she does.



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  • FBI, DHS Now Zero for 40 at Predicting Terror Attacks

    July 9, 2015 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Police State

    TerrorAlert

    Did you make it through the July 4th weekend alive? No ISIS attacks? I drank 78 Red Bulls to stay alert and maintain constant vigilance in my backyard, after fearing ISIS chatter was singling me out for retribution. I lived to write this.

    Were you scared about the full week’s worth of warnings from the FBI, DHS and their spokespersons at CNN, FOX and other media outlets?

    You shouldn’t have been. Website Fair.org chronicles almost 15 years of fear-mongering via warnings that meant nothing. Their list is just below. However, first, it is worth noting that real terror things, such as the failed by being too dumb to set off a bomb Times Square bomber, the failed by being too dumb to set off a bomb “Underwear bomber,” and the killed (OK, sadly) all of three people Boston bombing were accompanied by no such government warnings. Not a word about the deadlier terrorist attacks by right-wing white supremacist terrorists.

    Here’s the full list of the government’s 0 for 40 warning record:

    October 2001: “Potential use of chemical/biological and/or radiological/nuclear weapons“
    November 2001: California bridges
    February 2002: “Hollywood studios”
    May 2002: Statue of Liberty
    June 2002: “Around the Fourth of July holiday”
    July 2002: Stadiums
    August 2002: “Landmarks”
    October 2002: “AQ to attack Amtrak”
    November 2002: “Spectacular Al Qaeda attacks”
    February 2003: “Apartments, hotels, sports arenas and amusement parks“
    May 2003: “Possibility of multiple attacks”
    May 2004: “Attempt to affect the outcome” of presidential election
    July 2004: “Military facilities and large gatherings” on July 4th
    August 2004: VA hospitals
    January 2005: Dirty bomb
    March 2005: US/Mexican border
    October 2005: NYC & Baltimore subways
    March 2006: “Sporting events”
    June 2007: Colleges
    December 2007: “Shopping malls in Chicago and LA”
    November 2008: “Al Qaeda to attack transit during Thanksgiving”
    November 2010: Mass transit in New York City
    October 2011: “Americans in Europe” facing “commando-style AQ attack”
    February 2011: “Financial institutions”
    May 2011: “Threats of retaliation”
    June 2011: Al Qaeda “hit list”
    July 2011: “Private jets of executives” involved in drone manufacturing
    September 2011: “Small planes”
    September 2011: “New York City or Washington around…10th anniversary of 9/11”
    September 2011: Airports
    March 2012: “Terrorist hacking”
    August 2012: Anarchists blowing up bridge during Tampa RNC
    September 2012: “Islamic violence over movie”
    August 2013: “San Francisco on high alert”
    November 2013: “cyber attacks”
    April 2014: “College students abroad”
    December 2014: ISIS targeting Mississippi River bridge
    December 2014: ISIS “sabotaging US military personnel” over social media
    April 2015: ISIS targeting “parts of California”
    May 2015: ISIS targeting “military bases”
    July 2015: ISIS targeting July 4

    Sleep tight America, knowing rough men stand ready on those walls to try and scare you into obedience.




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  • No One Knows Where $210 Million USAID-funded Afghan Clinics Are

    July 8, 2015 // 5 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, PRT Life

    head_up_ass

    No one knows — literally, geographically, physically — what happened to $210 million in American taxpayer money spent by USAID, a part of your U.S. Department of State, on Afghan health programs.

    This is not a case of “well, it went to buy a heck of a lot of filing cabinets,” or “it was flushed down the toilet,” though those things are indeed possible. No, it appears that by using geospatial imagery, the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; slogan: “Can we please go home now?”) determined that 80 percent of the health facilities that were supposed to have been built never were.

    Worse yet, USAID accepted hilariously inaccurate data as proof of construction, including coordinates that would have located a medical facility in the middle of the Mediterranean.


    But the real wackiness is, as always, in the details:

    — Thirteen coordinates for funded Afghan projects were not even located in Afghanistan, with one located in the Mediterranean Sea.

    — Coordinates for 30 facilities were located in a province different from the one USAID reported.

    — In 13 cases, USAID reported two different funded facilities at the same coordinates.

    — 189 sets of coordinates showed no physical structure within 400 feet of the reported coordinates, and a subset of 81, or just under half of these locations, showed no physical structure within a half mile of the reported coordinates.

    — 154 coordinates did not identify a specific building.

    Takeaways? The buffoons running the USAID programs are just phoning it in. They are not even trying anymore to hide their own corruption, sloth, stupidity or lack of even the slightest concern for oversight. Any bonehead with Google Maps could have discovered with four mouse clicks USAID was being fed bogus data by its contractors, though apparently USAID is short of boneheads at present to do that work.

    As the inspectors at SIGAR sum it all up, “To provide meaningful oversight of these facilities, USAID needs to know where they are.”

    Play the USAID Game at Home, Kids! Based on coordinates provided, pictured is one supposed clinic, perched on a glacial peak:

    19298101245_a3089a9aec_z



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  • Remembering the Death of Kelly Thomas at the Hands of the Police

    July 7, 2015 // 10 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    kelly




    If a video of ISIS doing this to an American played on TV this afternoon, all of the country would be in an uproar. When it happened in America, there was barely a whisper.

    This week marks the fourth anniversary of the beating death of American Citizen Kelly Thomas at the hands of the Fullerton Police. All three cops seen in the video were found not guilty. The victim, Kelly, is shown in the hospital just before his death.

    I’m sorry if the image offended you, or if you are thinking of clicking away and unfollowing me on Twitter, but I am offended by what is happening in our country.



    Who the Cops Work For

    Kelly Thomas was a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia who lived on the streets of Fullerton, California. He was known to frequent an alleyway near a swanky restaurant. The owner didn’t like that, and allegedly phoned in a fake 911 report that Thomas was vandalizing cars to get the Fullerton Police on the scene to “take care” of the problem.

    The cops did their job. The really cleaned up the stain of a homeless guy getting in the way of someone making money.

    Kelly Thomas was beaten and killed by cops Jay Cicinelli, Manuel Ramos, and Joseph Wolfe on July 5, 2011. Thomas was comatose on arrival at the hospital, where he was taken after the three cops had had their fill of beating him. He never regained consciousness, and died on July 10, 2011.

    For nine minutes and 40 seconds, the officers pummeled Thomas to the ground, with Ramos delivering volleys of punches and beating Thomas with his baton and Cicinelli tasing the homeless man twice in the face.



    Choked on His Own Blood

    Medical records show that bones in Thomas’ face were broken and he choked on his own blood. The coroner concluded that compression of the thorax made it impossible for Thomas to breathe normally and deprived his brain of oxygen. The cops who beat him into that condition did not render any first aid on the scene, which may have saved their victim’s life.

    Officer Manuel Ramos (the cop at the beginning of the video who asks “See my fists?”) was charged with one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter; Corporal Jay Cicinelli and Officer Joseph Wolfe were each charged with one count of felony involuntary manslaughter and one count of excessive force.

    All three pleaded not guilty.



    Justice, American Style

    A judge declined to dismiss the charges against the officers in January 2013, finding that “a reasonable person could infer that the use of force was excessive and unreasonable.” The case went to trial and Ramos and Cicinelli were found not guilty of all charges. Following the verdict for the two officers, the district attorney’s office announced it would not pursue the case against Officer Wolfe.

    The defense argued cops must protect themselves when they believe they are in danger, without fear of prosecution for handling the incident with force.

    If this wasn’t wrong, then nothing can ever be wrong.







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  • Emma Watson Will Train Afghan Men to Be Feminists

    July 6, 2015 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy

    sexy-emma-watson-wallpaper


    So here we skip over to Afghanistan.

    As the UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, important actress Emma Watson (pictured above in traditional Afghan garb) has spent the last year trying to convince men that women’s equality is more than just a women’s issue. In the U.S., her “He for She” campaign gained the support of celebs like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who tweeted about it, and Steve Carell, who wore the campaign logo on his cufflink at the Oscars. Because of that tweet, and those now-famous cufflinks, women’s equality has been forever fixed in the Homeland.

    Ambassador Watson now has set out to complete her journey by taking the “He for She” struggle to Afghanistan. Apparently the Taliban, whom the U.S. is almost done defeating after 14 years of war, are not nice to their female property, and Emma is so on that thing.

    To kick off the UN campaign’s launch in Afghanistan last week, “local activists,” (i.e., a few women rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend) government officials (i.e., a few thugs who live off foreign graft rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend), and foreign dignitaries (i.e., a few UN interns rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend) met at a Kabul high school to demonstrate how men play an integral role in the fight for women’s rights. Using the slogan “A brave man stands for women,” activists took the stage and shared stories that attempted to reposition the fight for women’s rights as a courageous and valiant undertaking.

    The underlying message was that gender equality can’t be achieved unless men change the way they view women. It’s a major shift in tactics considering that up until recently, gender equality in Afghanistan has been framed largely as a cause taken up by women.

    Super quick reality check: So this has been the problem all along! The Taliban, and the thugs who preceded them, as well as the corrupt men who have been running Afghanistan for the last fourteen years of freedom under the direct supervision of the United States, just didn’t know that it was “a guy thing.” All those “honor killings” and rapes and child brides and murder of women, or that thing last month when a mob in downtown Kabul lynched a 27-year-old woman for allegedly burning a Quran, are just a perception issue.

    Easy fix. Ambassador Watson and the UN have set a lofty goal of acquiring signatures from 3,000 Afghan men and boys pledging to stand up for women’s rights on the “He for She” website (it is unclear 3,000 Afghans of any gender have access to the Internet.) It’s part of a broader aim to acquire pledges from one billion men and boys worldwide by the time the UN General Assembly convenes in September.

    This is all off to a great start — Emma’s website currently boasts 327,488 signatures! The bad news: the majority of them originated in the United States. Only 325 signatures came from Afghanistan, most likely from people rounded up and paid taxi fare to visit one of Kabul’s fine Internet cafes.

    But the program is not just sitting on its hands. It will fix all gender problems further in Afghanistan by gaining endorsements from “Afghan celebrities,” and screening a documentary film telling human-interest stories depicting the plight of Afghan women.

    And if all that fails, Ambassador Watson, who starred in the Harry Potter movies as empowered wizard Hermione Granger, will just wave her wand and shout “Reparo!” Come to think of it, that might have a better chance of helping than the rest of this silliness.

    Five points to Gryffindor!




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  • Home of the Brave: And Please Panic This July 4th

    July 3, 2015 // 18 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    4th

    America used to be a country with balls. Now, our government wants to make us into a nation of scaredy cats, existing in a state of constant fear and near-panic, like we were kids worrying if the school bully was waiting for us after school.

    Here’s the basic theme for this weekend: Americans need to remain vigilant to the threat of a terrorist attack, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul, warned. He said there has been increased chatter on social media that indicates terrorists may be planning to strike during the celebrations. “I am extremely concerned Syrian and ISIS recruiters can use the Internet at lightning speeds to recruit followers in the United States and then activate them to do whatever they want to do. Whether it’s military installations, law enforcement or possibly a Fourth of July event parade.”

    “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re sitting here a week from today talking about an attack over the weekend in the United States. That’s how serious this is,” former CIA deputy director Michael Morell told CBS. “There’s been about 50 people in the last 12 months who have been arrested in the United States for being radicalized by ISIS, wanting to go fight there or wanting to conduct an attack here.”

    USA Today added to the fear-mongering, noting “While there was no specific or credible threat of attack, the official said the intelligence bulletin prepared by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI alerted local colleagues to the ongoing threats posed by the Islamic State and other homegrown extremists. The official was not authorized to comment publicly.”

    So let’s break this down, ahead of your BBQ, beach time and backyard sparklers.

    America has suffered one significant foreign terror attack in the 239 years since the July 4th we celebrate this weekend. That attack was fourteen years ago and while tragic, took a similar number of lives has the number of Americans who have died since from toxoplasmotic brain parasites. The 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counterterrorism Center notes Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists. Perhaps even sadder, about double the number of Americans killed on 9/11 have died in the still-ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Disagree with one set of numbers, pick your favorite statistic/comparison, but you get the idea.

    Noteworthy is that while fourteen years ago, and for most of the succeeding years, is that the government warned the attacks were to be carried out or threatened by foreigners. This weekend’s warnings, however, point at Americans who want to do harm to other Americans. That seems to be one of the most significant “achievements” of the fourteen year war of terror, turning us into them.

    So this July 4, in honor of America’s 239th birthday, our government tells us not to be brave and free, but to be scared and fearful. We need to watch around us, and we need especially to watch our fellow citizens. One of them might be a lone wolf, supposedly “radicalized” by 140 characters he read on Twitter. We are to balance in our minds the conflicting images of a government that takes away our civil rights and pisses away our tax dollars to protect us while simultaneously saying they may not be able to protect us.

    Whatever you do this July 4th, don’t look for me there. I’ll be at home, doors locked, weapons cocked and ready in abject terror, trying not to remember what I’ll be drinking to forget. Happy Birthday America.




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  • On ‘The Heat’ Discussing the Failed American Strategy in Iraq

    July 2, 2015 // 4 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Military

    While the U.S. media panders to its audience via the blood sport of calling for more airstrikes, more weapons, more boots on the ground and overall more killing to “win” this time in Iraq, alternative sources of news seek out alternative voices. In this case, mine. Here’s what I had to say on Chinese television (CCTV) on the subject.





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  • Five (More) Things That Won’t Work in Iraq

    July 1, 2015 // 16 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq

    iraq valentine


    In one form or another, the U.S. has been at war with Iraq since 1990, including a sort-of invasion in 1991 and a full-scale one in 2003.

    During that quarter-century, Washington imposed several changes of government, spent trillions of dollars, and was involved in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. None of those efforts were a success by any conceivable definition of the term Washington has been capable of offering.

    Nonetheless, it’s the American Way to believe with all our hearts that every problem is ours to solve and every problem must have a solution, which simply must be found. As a result, the indispensable nation faces a new round of calls for ideas on what “we” should do next in Iraq.

    With that in mind, here are five possible “strategies” for that country on which only one thing is guaranteed: none of them will work.


    1. Send in the Trainers

    In May, in the wake of the fall of the Sunni city of Ramadi to Islamic State (IS) fighters, President Obama announced a change of course in Iraq. After less than a year of not defeating, degrading, or destroying the Islamic State, the administration will now send in hundreds more military personnel to set up a new training base at Taqaddum in Anbar Province. There are already five training sites running in Iraq, staffed by most of the 3,100 military personnel the Obama administration has sent in. Yet after nine months of work, not a single trained Iraqi trooper has managed to make it into a combat situation in a country embroiled in armed chaos.

    The base at Taqaddum may only represent the beginning of a new “surge.” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has begun to talk up what he calls “lily pads,” American baselets set up close to the front lines, from which trainers would work with Iraqi security forces. Of course, such lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, waiting for a hungry Islamic State frog.

    Leaving aside the all-too-obvious joke — that Dempsey is proposing the creation of a literal swamp, a desert quagmire of the lilypad sort — this idea has been tried. It failed over the eight years of the occupation of Iraq, when the U.S. maintained an archipelago of 505 bases in the country. (It also failed in Afghanistan.) At the peak of Iraq War 2.0, 166,000 troops staffed those American bases, conducting some $25 billion worth of training and arming of Iraqis, the non-results of which are on display daily. The question then is: How could more American trainers accomplish in a shorter period of time what so many failed to do over so many years?

    There is also the American belief that if you offer it, they will come. The results of American training so far, as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear recently, have fallen far short of expectations. By now, U.S. trainers were to have whipped 24,000 Iraqi soldiers into shape. The actual number to date is claimed to be some 9,000 and the description of a recent “graduation” ceremony for some of them couldn’t have been more dispiriting. (“The volunteers seemed to range in age from late teens to close to 60.” Given how much training the U.S. has made available in Iraq since 2003, it’s hard to imagine that too many young men have not given the option some thought. Simply because Washington opens more training camps, there is no reason to assume that Iraqis will show up.

    Oddly enough, just before announcing his new policy, President Obama seemed to pre-agree with critics that it wasn’t likely to work. “We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits,” he said at the close of the G7 summit in Germany. “It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.” Obama was on the mark. At the al-Asad training facility, the only one in Sunni territory, for instance, the Iraqi government has not sent a single new recruit to be trained by those American advisers for the past six weeks.

    And here’s some bonus information: for each U.S. soldier in Iraq, there are already two American contractors. Currently some 6,300 of them are in the country. Any additional trainers mean yet more contractors, ensuring that the U.S. “footprint” made by this no-boots-on-the-ground strategy will only grow and General Dempsey’s lilypad quagmire will come closer to realization.


    2. Boots on the Ground

    Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most vocal proponent of America’s classic national security go-to move: send in U.S. troops. McCain, who witnessed the Vietnam War unfold, knows better than to expect Special Forces operatives, trainers, advisers, and combat air traffic controllers, along with U.S. air power, to turn the tide of any strategic situation. His response is to call for more — and he’s not alone. On the campaign trail recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for instance, suggested that, were he president, he would consider a full-scale “re-invasion” of Iraq. Similarly, General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, urged the sending in of many boots: “I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.”

    Among the boots-on-the-ground crowd are also some former soldiers who fought in Iraq in the Bush years, lost friends, and suffered themselves. Blinking through the disillusion of it all, they prefer to believe that we actually won in Iraq (or should have, or would have, if only the Bush and Obama administrations hadn’t squandered the “victory”). Needed now, they claim, are more U.S. troops back on the ground to win the latest version of their war. Some are even volunteering as private citizens to continue the fight. Can there be a sadder argument than the “it can’t all have been a waste” one?

    The more-troops option is so easy to dismiss it’s hardly worth another line: if over eight years of effort, 166,000 troops and the full weight of American military power couldn’t do the trick in Iraq, what could you possibly expect even fewer resources to accomplish?


    3. Partnering with Iran

    As hesitancy within the U.S. military to deploy ground forces in Iraq runs into chicken-hawk drum-pounding in the political arena, working ever more closely with Iran has become the default escalation move. If not American boots, that is, what about Iranian boots?

    The backstory for this approach is as odd a Middle Eastern tale as you can find.

    The original Obama administration plan was to use Arab, not Iranian, forces as proxy infantry. However, the much-ballyhooed 60-nation pan-Arab coalition proved little more than a short-lived photo op. Few, if any, of their planes are in the air anymore. America flies roughly 85% of all missions against Islamic State targets, with Western allies filling in a good part of the rest. No Arab ground troops ever showed up and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.

    Washington has, of course, been in a Cold War-ish relationship with Iran since 1979 when the Shah fell and radical students took over the American Embassy in Tehran. In the 1980s, the U.S. aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, while in the years after the invasion of 2003 Iran effectively supported Iraqi Shiite militias against American forces occupying the country. Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, currently directing his country’s efforts in Iraq, was once one of the most wanted men on America’s kill list.

    In the wake of the 2014 Islamic State capture of Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities, Iran ramped up its role, sending in trainers, advisers, arms, and its own forces to support the Shiite militias that Baghdad saw as its only hope. The U.S. initially turned a blind eye on all this, even as Iranian-led militias, and possibly the Iranians themselves, became consumers of close American air support.

    In Washington right now, there is a growing, if quiet, acknowledgment that Iranian help is one of the few things that might push IS back without the need for U.S. ground troops. Small but telling escalations are occurring regularly. In the battle to retake the northern Sunni city of Tikrit, for example, the United States flew air missions supporting Shiite militias; the fig leaf of an explanation: that they operated under Iraqi government, not Iranian, control.

    “We’re going to provide air cover to all forces that are under the command and control of the government of Iraq,” a U.S. Central Command spokesperson similarly noted in reference to the coming fight to retake the city of Ramadi. That signals a significant shift, former State Department official Ramzy Mardini points out. “The U.S. has effectively changed its position, coming to the realization that Shiite militias are a necessary evil in the fight against IS.” Such thinking may extend to Iranian ground troops now evidently fighting outside the strategic Beiji oil refinery.

    Things may be even cozier between the U.S. and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias than we previously thought. Bloomberg reports that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both already using the Taqaddum military base, the very place where President Obama is sending the latest 450 U.S. military personnel.

    The downside? Help to Iran only sets up the next struggle the U.S. is likely to bumble into due to a growing Iranian hegemony in the region. Syria, perhaps?


    4. Arm the Kurds

    The Kurds represent Washington’s Great Hope for Iraq, a dream that plays perfectly into an American foreign policy trope about needing to be “liked” by someone. (Try Facebook.) These days, glance at just about any conservative website or check out right-wing pundits and enjoy the propaganda about the Kurds: they are plucky fighters, loyal to America, tough bastards who know how to stand and deliver. If only we gave them more weapons, they would kill more Islamic State bad guys just for us. To the right-wing crowd, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of Winston Churchill in World War II, crying out, “Just give us the tools and we’ll defeat Hitler!”

    There is some slight truth in all this. The Kurds have indeed done a good job of pushing IS militants out of swaths of northern Iraq and were happy for U.S. assistance in getting their Peshmerga fighters to the Turkish border when the locus of fighting was the city of Kobane. They remain thankful for the continuing air support the U.S. is providing their front-line troops and for the limited weapons Washington has already sent.

    For Washington, the problem is that Kurdish interests are distinctly limited when it comes to fighting Islamic State forces. When the de facto borders of Kurdistan were directly threatened, they fought like caffeinated badgers. When the chance to seize the disputed town of Erbil came up — the government in Baghdad was eager to keep it within its sphere of control — the Kurds beat the breath out of IS.

    But when it comes to the Sunni population, the Kurds don’t give a hoot, as long as they stay away from Kurdistan. Has anyone seen Kurdish fighters in Ramadi or anywhere else in heavily Sunni al-Anbar Province? Those strategic areas, now held by the Islamic State, are hundreds of actual miles and millions of political miles from Kurdistan. So, sure, arm the Kurds. But don’t expect them to play a strategic role against IS outside their own neighborhood. A winning strategy for the Kurds involving Washington doesn’t necessarily translate into a winning strategy for Washington in Iraq.


    5. That Political Solution

    Washington’s current man in Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Abadi, hasn’t moved his country any closer to Sunni-Shiite reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. In fact, because Abadi has little choice but to rely on those Shiite militias, which will fight when his corrupt, inept army won’t, he has only drawn closer to Iran. This has ensured that any (American) hope of bringing Sunnis into the process in a meaningful way as part of a unified government in a unified state will prove to be a pipe dream.

    A balance of forces is a prerequisite for a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish federal Iraq. With no side strong enough to achieve victory or weak enough to lose, negotiations could follow. When then-Senator Joe Biden first proposed the idea of a three-state Iraq in 2006, it just might have been possible. However, once the Iranians had built a Shiite Iraqi client state in Baghdad and then, in 2014, unleashed the militias as an instrument of national power, that chance was lost.

    Many Sunnis see no other choice but to support the Islamic State, as they did al-Qaeda in Iraq in the years after the American invasion of 2003. They fear those Shiite militias — and with good reason. Stories from the largely Sunni city of Tikrit, where militia-led forces defeated Islamic State fighters, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” In the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar, there were reports of ethnic cleansing. Similarly, the mainly Sunni population of the city of Nukhayb, which sits at a strategic crossroad between Sunni and Shiite areas, has accused the militias of taking over while pretending to fight the extremists.

    There remains great fear in Sunni-dominated Anbar of massacres and “cleansing” if Shiite militias enter the province in force. In such a situation, there will always be a place for an al-Qaeda, an Islamic State, or some similar movement, no matter how brutal, to defend the beleaguered Sunni population. What everyone in Iraq understands, and apparently almost everyone in America does not, is that the Islamic State is a symptom of civil war, not a standalone threat.

    One lingering hope of the Obama administration has no support in Baghdad and so has remained a non-starter: defeating IS by arming Sunni tribes directly in the style of the “Anbar Awakening” movement of the occupation years. Indeed, the central government fears arming them, absent a few token units to keep the Americans quiet. The Shiites know better than most what an insurgency can do to help defeat a larger, better-armed, power.

    Yet despite the risk of escalating Iraq’s shadow civil war, the U.S. now is moving to directly arm the Sunnis. Current plans are to import weapons into the newest lilypad base in Anbar and pass them on to local Sunni tribes, whether Baghdad likes that or not (and yes, the break with Baghdad is worth noting). The weapons themselves are as likely to be wielded against Shiite militias as against the Islamic State, assuming they aren’t just handed over to IS fighters.

    The loss of equipment to those militants is no small thing. No one talking about sending more new weaponry to Iraq, no matter who the recipient is, should ignore the ease with which Islamic State militants have taken U.S.-supplied heavy weapons. Washington has been forced to direct air strikes against such captured equipment — even as it ships yet more in. In Mosul, some 2,300 Humvees were abandoned to IS fighters in June 2014; more were left to them when Iraqi army forces suddenly fled Ramadi in May. This pattern of supply, capture, and resupply would be comically absurd, had it not turned tragic when some of those Humvees were used by IS as rolling, armored suicide bombs and Washington had to rush AT-4 anti-tank missiles to the Iraqi army to destroy them.


    The Real Reason Nothing Is Going to Work

    The fundamental problem underlying nearly every facet of U.S. policy toward Iraq is that “success,” as defined in Washington, requires all the players to act against their own wills, motivations, and goals in order to achieve U.S. aims. The Sunnis need a protector as they struggle for a political place, if not basic survival, in some new type of Iraq. The Shiite government in Baghdad seeks to conquer and control the Sunni regions. Iran wants to secure Iraq as a client state and use it for easier access to Syria. The Kurds want an independent homeland.

    When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter remarked, “What apparently happened [in Ramadi] was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” what he really meant was that the many flavors of forces in Iraq showed no will to fight for America’s goals. In the Washington mind-set, Iraq is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving problems that were either created by or exacerbated by the U.S. in the first place, even as America once again assumes an ever-greater role in that country’s increasingly grim fate.

    For America’s “plan” to work, Sunni tribesmen would have to fight Sunnis from the Islamic State in support of a Shiite government that suppressed their peaceful Arab-Spring-style protests, and that, backed by Iran, has been ostracizing, harassing, and murdering them. The Kurds would have to fight for an Iraqi nation-state from which they wish to be independent. It can’t work.

    Go back to 2011 and it’s unlikely anyone could have imagined that the same guy who defeated Hillary Clinton and gained the White House based on his opposition to the last Iraq War would send the U.S. tumbling back into that chaotic country. If ever there was an avoidable American crisis, Iraq War 3.0 is it. If ever there was a war, whatever its chosen strategies, in which the U.S. has no hopes of achieving its goals, this is it.

    By now, you’re undoubtedly shaking your head and asking, “How did this happen?” Historians will do the same.




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  • Turkey May Invade Syria, but to Stop the Kurds, Not IS

    June 30, 2015 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Iraq

    1 jeysh torki



    Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be planning to invade northern Syria to prevent Kurds from forming their own state there.



    Turkey to Invade Syria

    In a speech last Friday, Erdogan vowed that Turkey would not accept a move by Syrian Kurds to set up their own state in Syria following gains against Islamic State (IS). “We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria,” Erdogan said. “We will continue our fight in that respect whatever the cost may be.” He accused Syrian Kurds of ethnic cleansing in Syrian areas under their control.

    Reports are Erdogan will send the Turkish army into Syria. Up to 18,000 soldiers would take and hold a strip of territory up to 20 miles deep and 60 miles long that currently is held by IS. It stretches from close to the Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani in the east to an area further west held by the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups, beginning around the town of Mare. The “Mare Line” is to be secured with Turkish ground troops, artillery and air cover.



    Why This Matters

    — Turkey is entering the fighting in a big way. Turkey, a NATO country, is unilaterally and under dubious “defensive” standards invading another nation. Yeah, it’s 2015 that kind of thing happens pretty much all the time now, but it is still sort of worth noting.

    — Turkey is fighting the Kurds, a group whom the U.S. arms and supports as an anti-IS force. Anything Turkey does to weaken the Kurdish forces is in opposition to U.S. policy, may strengthen IS in the long run and may provoke some sort of political mess between Turkey and the U.S.

    — Turkish troops could easily get caught up in the general fighting now going on among IS, the Kurds and Syrian government troops, stepping smartly thus into the Syrian quagmire. Retaliation attacks by IS and/or Kurdish militants on Turkish territory may follow.

    — Kurdish forces supported by the U.S. elsewhere in Iraq may move against Turkey. This will weaken their efforts against IS in Iraq (a U.S. goal) and place additional pressure on the U.S. over whether or not to further arm, train and support them with air power.

    — NATO troops operating U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles near the Syrian border to shield member country Turkey against air attacks from Syria will be forced to either stand down completely, or try and discriminate in shooting back at an increasing crowded sky full of ambiguous good guys and bad guys.

    — Short version: a very messy situation will be getting worse.



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  • State Department Lamely Markets Anti-IS Messages to Millennials

    June 29, 2015 // 11 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Syria

    just_say_no_isis_terrorism_shirt

    I know a fair number of State Department employees peak at this blog, so I have a favor to ask.

    Would someone please tell the “social media gurus” at the State Department young people join Islamic State for a number of very serious and often deeply-held reasons — religion, disillusionment with the west, anger at American policy — and not because they saw an IS tweet? And that you can’t dissuade people from their beliefs simply with a clever hashtag and 140 characters of propaganda pablum?

    Yet the idea that the State Department can use social media to “counter program” IS’ message persists, even as its uselessness stares everyone but the State Department in the face.

    A Little Background on YouTube

    The State Department’s propaganda uses a negative message to try and counter the attraction of Islamic State. Started in 2011, State’s blather was only in foreign languages, moving into English in 2013. In 2014 year the work started showing up on YouTube. The theme then was “Think Again, Turn Away; the messaging was found on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even on the sides of buses in New York City as posters. One YouTube video includes subtitles such as “learn useful skills, such as blowing up mosques” and “crucifying Muslims.” Another features oil being poured on the ground framed as “squandering public resources.

    The content is seemingly written more to appeal to Washington than potential jihadis, as you can see in this example. A lot of the messaging mocks potential recruits, claiming, for example, they read “Islam for Dummies” before heading to Syria. Those efforts cost between $5 million and $6.8 million a year.

    When in Doubt, Hire a Consultant

    With the clear failure of that messaging to stop the flow of western recruits to IS (State does like to point to proving the negative, suggesting they cannot measure people who did not join), the State Department is now trying a new version of the old strategy.

    EdVenture Partners, a company whose self-described mission is to connect clients with the “valuable and powerful millennial market” to sell junk to dumbasses, was hired to enlist student teams to combat violent extremism with some kind of digital effort — an app, a website or an online initiative. It was to be a contest; State would pick the winners and fund those as U.S. government propaganda, er, counter messaging.

    Because, see, up until now, the problem has been that those dang young people just weren’t “getting down” with the messages old people at State were “putting out there.” For real. Ya’all.

    “Millennials can speak better to millennials, there’s no question about that,” State Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Keiderling, who was a judge in the competition, said, sounding like some 1950s educational film narrator.


    How to Defeat Islamic State

    So here’s how the young will be stopping other youngsters from joining Islamic State.

    — Australia’s Curtin University developed an app called 52Jumaa, which to support young Muslims. The app sends daily positive affirmations about Islam to users’ smartphones, allows them to connect with other Muslims and asks them to complete a selfless act of kindness every Friday.

    — Students at Texas A&M came up with a website idea called The Funny Militant, which would run jihadi-centric parodies, including a hilarious app for finding a jihadi bride and one called Who’s Your Bagdaddy?

    — Missouri State’s product, which won the competition, is a website about the dangers of violent extremism. The site provides English-language curriculum for teaching about the extreme ideological ideas on social media and how to recognize them. It also includes trivia, community boards and videos from people who have been directly affected by terrorism.

    Wait — the winner sounds almost exactly like the lame stuff the State Department already spews out, basically saying “IS is bad, so don’t do that,” the war on terror’s reboot of the 1980s anti-drug message “Just Say No.” The winning group also created a hashtag, so you know they are like super-serious: #EndViolentExtremism

    Here are all the winners of the competition. Looks can obviously be deceiving, but one does wonder how many Muslims are in a group seeking to speak directly to Muslims in a voice that doesn’t sound like a bunch of know-it-all white kids from the ‘burbs:





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  • To Hell with It, South to Double-Down on Slavery (Satire)

    June 27, 2015 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    redneck-car


    Noting that it has been a really bad week for bigots, the South decided the only answer is to double-down.

    “In one lousy week, everyone is taking down the Confederate flag, gays can now get married and people — even the blacks — can buy that Obamacare. It has just not been a good one for us. I even heard Cracker Barrel and Waffle House are switching away from trans-fats,” said spokesbigot ‘Clem’ (who isn’t sure that’s his real name.)

    “So what do you do? You fight back! The South will rise again!” shouted a second spokesredneck, letting out both a loud fart and a rebel yell from the broken down barco-lounger on his dilapidated front porch he could not rise from due to weighing 300 pounds and thus having to dress in a large Hefty bag.

    “Fighting back” in this instance is taking the form of actual slavery.

    “While it didn’t work out in the long game with Africans, oh, excuse me, ‘African-Americans,’ we want to try it again with other white people. We intend to enslave each other, kind of top and bottom, or least that’s what I heard. Or maybe it was on the online; Jeb just bought him a new modem for the AOL. Anyway, we’ll preserve the great Southern heritage and culture of dehumanization, narrow-mindedness and hate the only way we can at the present time, with white slaves.”

    “There are some details. First, we’ll need to come up with some good racial slurs to refer to each other as. The lame Supreme Court took away our good ones, so that’s a big issue right up front. Next, there is finding enough whites to be the slaves. We have a bunch of the good old boys down here wanting to volunteer, but we are also looking overseas, maybe to one of those European countries with a debt problem, to see if we can harvest some there. We’d kind of like to stick to the traditional way of bringing the slaves in by old-timey ships. Might attract some tourists, too.”

    “As for our manly essences, we will still spill them in service to the Lord’s decree that we reproduce. But if the Supreme Court wants us to be ‘fair,’ well, nobody is gonna be allowed to get married. We’ll do it in line with our culture, the way it has always been done: with our animals, our cousins, and our slaves.”

    “The government thinks it can take away our freedom to take away other people’s freedom, but we intend to show them.”




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  • Today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

    June 26, 2015 // 7 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Iraq



    Today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

    In honor of the victims and with hatred for the torturers, including the United States of America, I am re-running an older article that speaks to the real horrors of what has been and is being done to other human beings.

    There’s one particular nightmare that Americans need to face: in the first decade of the twenty-first century we tortured people as national policy. One day, we’re going to have to confront the reality of what that meant, of what effect it had on its victims and on us, too, we who condoned, supported, or at least allowed it to happen, either passively or with guilty (or guiltless) gusto. If not, torture won’t go away. It can’t be disappeared like the body of a political prisoner, or conveniently deep-sixed simply by wishing it elsewhere or pretending it never happened or closing our bureaucratic eyes. After the fact, torture can only be dealt with by staring directly into the nightmare that changed us — that, like it or not, helped make us who we now are.

    The president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has made it clear that no further investigations or inquiries will be made into America’s decade of torture. His Justice Department failed to prosecute a single torturer or any of those who helped cover up evidence of the torture practices.  But it did deliver a jail sentence to one ex-CIA officer who refused to be trained to torture and was among the first at the CIA to publicly admit that the torture program was real.

    At what passes for trials at our prison camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, disclosure of the details of torture is forbidden, effectively preventing anyone from learning anything about what the CIA did with its victims. We are encouraged to do what’s best for America and, as Barack Obama put it, “look forward, not backward,” with the same zeal as, after 9/11, we were encouraged to save America by going shopping.


    Looking into the Eyes of the Tortured

    Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it. I know, because in the course of my 24 years as a State Department officer, I spoke with two men who had been tortured, both by allies of the United States and with at least the tacit approval of Washington. While these men were tortured, Americans in a position to know chose to look the other way for reasons of politics. These men were not movie characters, but complex flesh-and-blood human beings. Meet just one of them once and, I assure you, you’ll never follow the president’s guidance and move forward trying to forget.


    The Korean Poet

    The first victim was a Korean poet. I was in Korea at the time as a visa officer working for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Persons with serious criminal records are normally ineligible to travel to the United States. There is, however, an exception in the law for political crimes. It was initially carved out for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War years. I spoke to the poet as he applied for a visa to determine if his arrest had indeed been “political” and so not a disqualification for his trip to the U.S.

    Under the brutal military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, the poet was tortured for writing anti-government verse. To younger Americans, South Korea is the land of “Gangnam Style,” of fashionable clothing and cool, cool electronics. However, within Psy’s lifetime, his nation was ruled by a series of military autocrats, supported by the United States in the interest of “national security.”

    The poet quietly explained to me that, after his work came to the notice of the powers that be, he was taken from his apartment to a small underground cell. Soon, two men arrived and beat him repeatedly on his testicles and sodomized him with one of the tools they had used for the beating. They asked him no questions. In fact, he said, they barely spoke to him at all. Though the pain was beyond his ability to describe, even as a poet, he said that the humiliation of being left so utterly helpless was what remained with him for life, destroyed his marriage, sent him to the repeated empty comfort of alcohol, and kept him from ever putting pen to paper again.

    The men who destroyed him, he told me, entered the room, did their work, and then departed, as if they had many others to visit that day and needed to get on with things. The Poet was released a few days later and politely driven back to his apartment by the police in a forward-looking gesture, as if the episode of torture was over and to be forgotten.


    The Iraqi Tribal Leader

    The second torture victim I met while I was stationed at a forward operating base in Iraq. He was a well-known SOI leader. The SOI, or Sons of Iraq, were Sunni tribesmen who, as part of Iraq War commander General David Petraeus’s much-discussed “Anbar Awakening” agreed to stop killing Americans and, in return for money we paid them, take up arms against al-Qaeda. That was 2007. By 2010, when I met the man, the Sons of Iraq, as Sunnis, had no friends in the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the U.S. was expediently allowing its Sunni friendships to fade away.

    Over dessert one sticky afternoon, the SOI leader told me that he had recently been released from prison. He explained that the government had wanted him off the street in the run-up to a recent election, so that he would not use his political pull to get in the way of a Shia victory. The prison that held him was a secret one, he told me, under the control of some shadowy part of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces.

    He had been tortured by agents of the Maliki government, supported by the United States in the interest of national security. Masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said that they neither asked him any questions nor demanded any information. They whipped his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar that would ordinarily have been used to reinforce concrete.

    It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What truly wounded him was the feeling of utter helplessness. A man like himself, he stated with an echo of pride, had never felt helpless. His strength was his ability to control things, to stand up to enemies, to fight, and if necessary, to order men to their deaths. Now, he no longer slept well at night, was less interested in life and its activities, and felt little pleasure. He showed me his blackened toenails, as well as the caved in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves. When he paused and looked across the room, I thought I could almost see the movie running in his head.


    Alone in the Dark

    I encountered those two tortured men, who described their experiences so similarly, several years and thousands of miles apart. All they really had in common was being tortured and meeting me. They could, of course, have been lying about, or exaggerating, what had happened to them. I have no way to verify their stories because in neither country were their torturers ever brought to justice. One man was tortured because he was considered a threat to South Korea, the other to Iraq. Those “threatened” governments were among the company the U.S. keeps, and they were known torturers, regularly justifying such horrific acts, as we would also do in the first years of the twenty-first century, in the name of security. In our case, actual torture techniques would reportedly be demonstrated to some of the highest officials in the land in the White House itself, then “legalized,” and carried out in global “black sites” and foreign prisons.


    A widely praised movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, opens with a series of torture scenes. The victims are various Muslims and al-Qaeda suspects, and the torturers are members of the U.S. government working for the CIA. We see a prisoner strapped to the wall, bloody, with his pants pulled down in front of a female CIA officer. We see another having water poured into his mouth and lungs until he wretches in agony (in what during the Middle Ages was bluntly called “the Water Torture,” later “the water cure,” or more recently “waterboarding”). We see men shoved forcibly into tiny confinement boxes that do not allow them to sit, stand, or lie down.

    These are were among the techniques of torture “lawfully” laid out in a CIA Inspector General’s report, some of which would have been alarmingly familiar to the tortured men I spoke with, as they might be to Bradley Manning, held isolated, naked, and without sleep in U.S. military prisons in a bid to break his spirit.

    The movie scenes are brutal, yet sanitized.  As difficult to watch as the images are, they show nothing beyond the infliction of pain. Horrific as it may be, pain fades, bones mend, bruises heal. No, don’t for a second think that the essence of torture is physical pain, no matter what Zero Dark Thirty implies. If, in many cases, the body heals, mental wounds are a far more difficult matter. Memory persists.

    The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. After all, it’s not just about eliciting information — sometimes, as in the case of the two men I met, it’s not about information at all. Torture is, however, invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control. We’re just slapping you now, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? “You lie to me, I hurt you,” says a CIA torturer in Zero Dark Thirty to his victim. The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror. Yes, torture “works” — to destroy people.

    Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused 9/11 “mastermind,” was waterboarded 183 times. Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison, stating, “They used dogs on us, they beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn’t allow me to sleep for six days.” Brandon Neely, a U.S. military policeman and former Guantanamo guard, watched a medic there beat an inmate he was supposed to treat. CIA agents tortured a German citizen, a car salesman named Khaled el-Masri, who was picked up in a case of mistaken identity, sodomizing, shackling, and beating him, holding him in total sensory deprivation, as Macedonian state police looked on, so the European Court of Human Rights found last week.

    Others, such as the Court of Human Rights or the Senate Intelligence Committee, may give us glimpses into the nightmare of official American policy in the first years of this century. Still, our president refuses to look backward and fully expose the deeds of that near-decade to sunlight; he refuses to truly look forward and unambiguously renounce forever the use of anything that could be seen as an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  Since he also continues to support robustly the precursors to torture — the “extraordinary rendition” of captured terror suspects to allied countries that are perfectly happy to torture them and indefinite detention by decree — we cannot fully understand what men like the Korean poet and the Iraqi tribal leader already know on our behalf: we are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.




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  • Does Income Inequality Matter to the Richest Americans?

    June 24, 2015 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Minimum Wage

    Scrooge McDuck



    Does income inequality matter to the richest Americans? Not very much. Here’s why. And it’s more than just greed-is-good; the rich will just get richer.

    A study by economists at Washington University in St. Louis tells us stagnant income for the bottom 95 percent of wage earners makes it impossible for them to consume as they did in the years before the downturn. Consumer spending, some say, drives the U.S. economy, and is likely to continue to continue to dominate, as the decomposition of America’s industrial base dilutes old economy sales of appliances, cars, steel and the like. That should be bad news for the super-wealthy, us buying less stuff?

    But that same study shows that while rising inequality reduced income growth for the bottom 95 percent of beginning around 1980, the group’s consumption growth did not fall proportionally at first. Instead, lower savings and hyper-available credit (remember Countrywide mortgages and usurous re-fi’s?) put the middle and bottom portions of our society on an unsustainable financial path which increased spending until it triggered the Great Recession. So, without surprise, consumption fell sharply in the recession, consistent with tighter borrowing constraints. Meanwhile, America’s the top earners’ wealth grew. The recession represented the largest redistribution of wealth in this century.

    The gap between most Americans and those few who sit atop our economy continues to grow. For two decades after 1960, real incomes of the top five percent and the remaining 95 percent increased at almost the same rate, about four percent a year. But incomes diverged between 1980 and 2007, with those at the bottom seeing annual increases only half of that of those at the top.

    This leaves the very real issue for the rich of who will buy all the stuff their big corporations make? But don’t worry. They’ve got it handled.

    Taxpayer Subsidies to Big Corporations

    Don’t worry about the big guys; they have figured out how to profit off poverty. Wal-Mart, Target and Kroger have made profits of $75.2 billion off food stamp purchases, even setting a new record in 2012.

    And never mind how food stamps and other benefits are used by those same retailers to subsidize the low wages they pay their workers. Meanwhile, the same bill in Congress that would cut food stamps pays out farm subsidies to America’s billionaires, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Charles Schwab and S. Truett Cathy of Chick-fil-A.

    The American Beverage Association, a lobby group that includes Coca-Cola, strongly opposes restricting soda purchases by food stamp recipients. Why? Recipients spend from $1.7 to $2.1 billion annually for sugar-sweetened beverages. While alcohol and other unhealthy items are restricted for purchase with stamps, soda stands available.

    Government Defense Spending

    About the only manufacturing-industrial sector of the American economy left prevailing over all foreign competition is defense. America buys its military hardware almost exclusively from domestic corporations (with a few crumbs tossed to allies like the UK and Israel) and fills the job ranks of the industry, contractors, and military with Americans.

    In 2011, the U.S. government spent about $718 billion on defense, including arms sales and transfers to foreign governments. Hardware alone accounted for $128 billion. The total figure does not veterans benefits of $127 billion in 2011, or about 3.5 percent of the federal budget. America’s newest aircraft carrier cost $13 billion, not including development costs.

    The Stock Market

    The stock market (which set record highs in 2013) is a significant source of wealth in America. Indeed, what could be easier than placing money into an investment and, with no sweat or effort of one’s own, seeing it grow. A rising market lifts the national economy, and a rising tide lifts all boats.

    The truth is closer to a rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. Less than half of Americans own any stock at all. The wealthiest five percent of Americans meanwhile hold some 70 percent of all stock.

    Bump the “top” group to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans and they own over 80 percent of all stock. At the same time, the lowest 90 percent own the leftover 20 percent.

    So Don’t Worry about the Rich

    These examples– and there are more– see tax write-offs, use of trusts to limit inheritance tax, offshore banking, large scale real estate (the top ten percent own about 40 percent of America’s land) show that income inequality is not a problem for the rich, and it is not a problem for America’s “economy” per se. The huge concentration of wealth in a small number of hands, and the methods by which those few acquire and maintain their wealth, means that the 99 percent of us edge closer and closer to playing no significant role in the economy anyway. We are becoming merely the collateral damage of income inequality.



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  • The New Apartheid is Dollars, Not Color

    June 23, 2015 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent



    In the U.S. forty-seven million people get SNAP (food stamps, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so you can sound odd while starving; it also uses a debit card system now, not actual stamps or coupons anymore.)

    In Ohio, like most places, they pay out the whole state on the first of the month, millions of people, Pay Day, Food Day, Mother’s Day, people call it. “Their kind” of stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day, kind of mini-economic boom, or maybe more like a bear waking up in the winter to eat before going back to sleep. It’s the government keeping families— and businesses— alive, thirty days at a time.

    A single person with nothing to her name in my old state of Virginia would qualify for about $200 a month in SNAP. We’ll assume by now she’s pretty skinny but fifty bucks a week for food is hard, hard. Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she does. However, in our America, something like ten percent of families with kids don’t have enough to eat. Our system is trending toward telling those kids to go to hell if they’re hungry.


    Trick question; they’re already there.


    Attempts to provide healthcare to more people, however flawed or hesitant, are opposed by too many of us. The quality of education kids get depends on how much money you have. Buy a nice house in a good neighborhood, or settle for whatever is nearby staffed by whoever they can get for whatever they are paying. Worse for college, where it is just all about the Benji’s. Same for safety. There’s no surprise that six of the ten most dangerous cities in America are decayed industrial towns— Flint and Detroit and Cleveland top the list. If the cops show up at all in those bad neighborhoods it’s to stop and frisk, or, to shoot. They’re not there to protect you, but to protect them.

    While much of the disparity has been along racial lines, the new apartheid is one of dollars, not color, suburbanized.

    So Get a Job

    Unlike many other first world nations, we in America equate minimal life standards that benefit society as a whole and make a place more worth living in– eating, healthcare, education– with a certain level of employment. So, don’t like what you got? Go get a better job loser. Lazy, dumb people get what they deserve. I work for a living. Sound familiar? Dickens had his character Scrooge say back in Victorian England that hungry children might best “starve so as to reduce the surplus population.”

    OK, I’ll go get a job. But then our society creates a significant portion of our available jobs to fall under the level of livable employment. More and more jobs tumble into minimum wage (or less; any employee eligible for tips does not have to be paid even the minimum) and limit the number of hours available each week to keep everyone below “full time” so no benefits need be paid. This creates the Working Poor, a permanent underclass.

    The system also allows ignorant people to blame the working poor for their own suffering (and the ignorant people can then content themselves “knowing” it is not their responsibility to help) when in fact there is no way out. Not everyone can get or afford an education (see above), and of course even with an education the number of “good” jobs is limited. Education and training do not create new jobs. New jobs create the need for training and education. Without those jobs, all you are doing is making trained unemployed people out of untrained unemployed people.

    Welcome to the Jungle

    Having lived and traveled in the real Third World, it is clear where the lines meet out in the future distance. In many of those countries, two worlds exist in proximity. Out “there” are shanty towns where life expectancy is short and life is mean and hard, where kids die of diseases easily fixed with common vaccines and medicine, where access to clean water is a daily challenge and where scavenging through the garbage of wealthy people counts as a job. The real 99 Percent.

    Meanwhile, the smaller one percent group of wealthy people literally wall themselves off inside compounds. They send their children to private schools, they shop at exclusive stores and they either fly out for medical care or import doctors in. Other than household servants (paid as little as possible by people who keep as much money for themselves as possible) or perhaps some poverty tourism, the two worlds rarely meet. And don’t talk about guns and some mythical American Spring. The rich are well-armed, up to private paramilitaries in some parts of the world. Opiates of all flavors work to destroy will. Poverty creates it’s own sense of weakness, and in most cases the poor come along to too-quietly just accept their fate. Medieval serfs and Confederate slaves mostly did the same.

    Future’s Now

    Absent a change in America, that’s our future. Actually, some parts of America are ahead of the curve. Go to any large American city and we are mostly there; a few miles from some of the highest-priced real estate in the world in midtown Manhattan you fall into the free-fire zone of the South Bronx.

    Prefer numbers? Between 1947 and 1973 actual incomes rose percentage-wise at the same level for about everyone. But from 1973-1993 the top one percent of Americans saw income grow seventy-to-eighty percent and today the one percent own forty percent of U.S. wealth. They own the jobs, the businesses, the stock, the land, maybe the people themselves.

    We have created what is essentially a growing third world inside of our shrinking first world society.




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  • Echoes of Vietnam, or Between Iraq and a Hard Place

    June 22, 2015 // 6 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Military

    Kim Phuc story

    Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.

    But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.


    In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.

    Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.

    After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.

    It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.

    It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.

    This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog. Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.

    The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.

    In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.


    We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.


    Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.

    Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.

    In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics

    One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.




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  • It’s Father’s Day, Call Your Dad

    June 21, 2015 // 3 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Uncategorized

    beaver1-360x220



    You called your dad, right?

    As a public service to those waking up late, call your Dad. Some tips:

    — Don’t let him pass the phone to mom for at least 60 seconds;

    — You may only discuss the weather for 20 of those seconds. If you have recently experienced a hurricane or major earthquake, you can take 45 seconds. If Dad recently experienced a hurricane or major earthquake, you get 20 seconds on “weather” and then you have to roll the rest into the “So, really, how’s it going?”

    — You must listen to his health update as long as he wants to run with it. It’s Father’s Day, so sack up buddy, and hear all about that hemorrhoid the size of a Polish sausage, how he can’t pee anymore, or how Mom is making him eat yoghurt and “whatever the f*ck kale is” for his bowel thing.

    — You must listen to at least one “When I was your age…” story. You are, however, permitted to steer this toward safe-topics like bands he listened to that were better than the crap you listen to, sports team franchises that no longer exist, or, if you are lucky, stuff about his girlfriends before Mom as long as he keeps it clean. Dad!

    — Somewhere in the conversation you must mention one or two details of your own life. Actual details, not just “Yeah, work is OK.” This is an easy one. Complain about your boss. Something about computers not working. If you are unemployed or after Dad paid for four years of undergrad so you could study English your job is working fast food, best to make something up. It’s Father’s Day, after all, save him the coronary until another week.

    — Tolerate, just this once, any old-timey racist or sexist remarks, or jokes. He means well. He grew up in a different time and era. He doesn’t yet know about your new life partner of a different race or the same sex. Mom is sort of waiting for the right moment on that to tell him, such as maybe never in hopes you see the light and break up before Dad finds out.

    — Practice in the mirror: “Sure, put Mom on the phone. We should talk more.”




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  • Life in the New American Minimum-Wage Economy with the Ghosts of Tom Joad

    June 20, 2015 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage

    There are many sides to whistleblowing. The one that most people don’t know about is the very personal cost, prison aside, including the high cost of lawyers and the strain on family relations, that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience. Here’s a part of my own story I’ve not talked about much before.

    At age 53, everything changed. Following my whistleblowing first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I was run out of the good job I had held for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of State. As one of its threats, State also took aim at the pension and benefits I’d earned, even as it forced me into retirement. Would my family and I lose everything I’d worked for as part of the retaliation campaign State was waging? I was worried. That pension was the thing I’d counted on to provide for us and it remained in jeopardy for many months. I was scared.

    My skill set was pretty specific to my old job. The market was tough in the Washington, D.C. area for someone with a suspended security clearance. Nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy, and I needed some money. All the signs pointed one way — toward the retail economy and a minimum-wage job.

    And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn’t just the money. There’s this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future.

    Old World/New World

    The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my hometown in northern Ohio. It was almost a rite of passage during high school, when I pulled in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the cash registers and our moms and dads shopped in the store. A good story about a possible date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager, who was probably the only adult in those days we called by his first name. When you graduated from high school, he would hire one of your friends and the cycle would continue.

    At age 53, I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum-wage work in a big box retail store we’ll call “Bullseye.” I had prepared a story about wanting some fun part-time work and a new experience, but no one asked or cared. It felt like joining the French Foreign Legion, where you leave your past behind, assume a new name, and disappear anonymously into the organization in some distant land. The manager who hired me seemed focused only on whether I’d show up on time and not steal. My biggest marketable skill seemed to be speaking English better than some of his Hispanic employees. I was, that is, “well qualified.”

    Before I could start, however, I had to pass a background and credit check, along with a drug test. Any of the anonymous agencies processing the checks could have vetoed my employment and I would never have known why. You don’t have any idea what might be in the reports the store receives, or what to feel about the fact that some stranger at a local store now knows your financial and criminal history, all for the chance to earn seven bucks an hour.

    You also don’t know whether the drug tests were conducted properly or, as an older guy, if your high blood pressure medicine could trigger a positive response. As I learned from my co-workers later, everybody always worries about “pissing hot.” Most places that don’t pay much seem especially concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, since you can trade bonds and get through the day higher than a bird on a cloud. Nonetheless, I did what I had to in front of another person, handing him the cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognize, a we’re-all-in-it, what’re-ya-gonna-do look, just a little upward flick of his eyes.

    Now a valued member of the Bullseye team, I was told to follow another employee who had been on the job for a few weeks, do what he did, and then start doing it by myself by the end of my first shift. The work was dull but not pointless: put stuff on shelves; tell customers where stuff was; sweep up spilled stuff; repeat.

    Basic Training

    It turned out that doing the work was easy compared to dealing with the job. I still had to be trained for that.

    You had to pay attention, but not too much. Believe it or not, that turns out to be an acquired skill, even for a former pasty government bureaucrat like me. Spend enough time in the retail minimum-wage economy and it’ll be trained into you for life, but for a newcomer, it proved a remarkably slow process. Take the initiative, get slapped down. Break a rule, be told you’re paid to follow the rules. Don’t forget who’s the boss. (It’s never you.) It all becomes who you are.

    Diving straight from a salaried career back into the kiddie pool was tough. I still wanted to do a good job today, and maybe be a little better tomorrow. At first, I tried to think about how to do the simple tasks more efficiently, maybe just in a different order to save some walking back and forth. I knew I wasn’t going to be paid more, but that work ethic was still inside of me. The problem was that none of us were supposed to be trying to be good, just good enough. If you didn’t know that, you learned it fast. In the process, you felt yourself getting more and more tired each day.

    Patient Zero in the New Economy

    One co-worker got fired for stealing employee lunches out of the break room fridge. He apologized to us as security marched him out, saying he was just hungry and couldn’t always afford three meals. I heard that when he missed his rent payments he’d been sleeping in his car in the store parking lot. He didn’t shower much and now I knew why. Another guy, whose only task was to rodeo up stray carts in the parking lot, would entertain us after work by putting his cigarette out on his naked heel. The guys who came in to clean up the toilets got up each morning knowing that was what they would do with another of the days in their lives.

    Other workers were amazingly educated. One painted in oils. One was a recent college grad who couldn’t find work and liked to argue with me about the deeper meanings in the modern fiction we’d both read.

    At age 53, I was the third-oldest minimum-wage worker in the store. A number of the others were single moms. (Sixty-four percent of minimum-wage employees are women. About half of all single-parent families live in poverty.) There was at least one veteran. (“The Army taught me to drive a Humvee, which turns out not to be a marketable skill.”) There were a couple of students who were alternating semesters at work with semesters at community college, and a small handful of recent immigrants. One guy said that because another big box store had driven his small shop out of business, he had to take a minimum-wage job. He was Patient Zero in our New Economy.

    State law only required a company to give you a break if you worked six hours or more under certain conditions. Even then, it was only 30 minutes — and unpaid. You won’t be surprised to discover that, at Bullseye, most non-holiday shifts were five-and-a-half hours or less. Somebody said it might be illegal not to give us more breaks, but what can you do? Call 911 like it was a real crime?

    Some good news, though. It turned out that I had another marketable skill in addition to speaking decent English: being old. One day as a customer was bawling out a younger worker over some imagined slight, I happened to wander by. The customer assumed I was the manager, given my age, and began directing her complaints at me. I played along, even steepling my fingers to show my sincere concern just as I had seen actual managers do. The younger worker didn’t get in trouble, and for a while I was quite popular among the kids whenever I pulled the manager routine to cover them.

    Hours were our currency. You could trade them with other employees if they needed a day off to visit their kid’s school. You could grab a few extra on holidays. If you could afford it, you could swap five bad-shift hours for three good-shift hours. The store really didn’t care who showed up as long as someone showed up. Most minimum-wage places cap workers at under 40 hours a week to avoid letting them become “full time” and so possibly qualify for any kind of benefits. In my case, as work expanded and contracted, I was scheduled for as few as seven hours a week and I never got notice until the last moment if my hours were going to be cut.

    Living on a small paycheck was hard enough. Trying to budget around wildly varying hours, and so paychecks, from week to week was next to impossible. Seven hours a week at minimum wage was less than 50 bucks. A good week around the Christmas rush was 39 hours, or more than $270. At the end of 2013, after I had stopped working at Bullseye, the minimum wage did go up from a little more than $7 to $8 an hour, which was next to no improvement at all. Doesn’t every little bit help? Maybe, but what are a few more crumbs of bread worth when you need a whole loaf not to be hungry?

    Working to Be Poor

    So how do you live on $50 a week, or for that matter, $270 a week? Cut back? Recycle cans?

    One answer is: You don’t live on those wages alone. You can’t. Luckily I had some savings, no kids left in the house to feed, and my wife was still at her “good” job.  Many of my co-workers, however, dealt with the situation by holding down two or three minimum-wage jobs. Six hours on your feet is tough, but what about 12 or 14? And remember, there are no weekends or holidays in most minimum-wage jobs. Bullseye had even begun opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons.

    The smart workers found their other jobs in the same strip mall as our Bullseye, so they could run from one to the next, cram in as many hours as they could, and save the bus fare. It mattered: At seven bucks an hour, that round trip fare meant you worked your first 45 minutes not for Bullseye but for the bus company. (The next 45 minutes you worked to pay taxes.)

    Poverty as a Profit Center

    Many low-wage workers have to take some form of public assistance. Food stamps — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — were a regular topic of conversation among my colleagues. Despite holding two or three jobs, there were still never enough hours to earn enough to eat enough. SNAP was on a lot of other American’s minds as well — the number of people using food stamps increased by 13 percent a year from 2008 to 2012. About 1 in 7 Americans get some of their food through SNAP. About 45 percent of food stamp benefits go to children.

    Enjoying that Big Mac? Here’s one reason it’s pretty cheap and that the junk sold at “Bullseye” and the other big box stores is, too: Those businesses get away with paying below a living wage and instead you, the taxpayer, help subsidize those lousy wages with SNAP. (And of course since minimum-wage workers have taxes deducted, too, they are — imagine the irony — essentially forced to subsidize themselves.)

    That subsidy does not come cheap, either. The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry alone is nearly $7 billion per year. McDonald’s workers alone account for $1.2 billion in federal assistance annually.

    All that SNAP money is needed to bridge the gap between what the majority of employed people earn through the minimum wage, and what they need to live a minimum life. Nearly three-quarters of enrollments in America’s major public benefits programs involve working families stuck in jobs like I had. There are a lot of those jobs, too. The positions that account for the most workers in the U.S. right now are retail salespeople, cashiers, restaurant workers, and janitors. All of those positions pay minimum wage or nearly so. Employers are actually allowed to pay below minimum wage to food workers who might receive tips.

    And by the way, if somehow at this point you’re feeling bad for Walmart, don’t. In addition to having it’s workforce partially paid for by the government, Walmart also makes a significant portion of its profits by selling to people receiving federal food assistance. Though the Walton family is a little too shy to release absolute numbers, a researcher found that in one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts together received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars. One Walmart Supercenter in Tulsa, Oklahoma, received $15.2 million, while another (also in Tulsa) took in close to $9 million in SNAP spending.

    You could say that taxpayers are basically moneylenders to a government that is far more interested in subsidizing business than in caring for their workers, but would anyone believe you?

    Back in the Crosshairs

    Some employees at Bullseye had been yelled at too many times or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were not only broke, but broken. People — like dogs — don’t get that way quickly, only by a process of erosion eating away at whatever self-esteem they may still possess. Then one day, if a supervisor tells them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’ll be too afraid of contradicting the boss not to do it.

    I’d see employees rushing in early, terrified, to stand by the time clock so as not to be late. One of my fellow workers broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she’d be fired on the spot. And what a lousy way to live that is, your only incentive for doing good work being the desperate need to hang onto a job guaranteed to make you hate yourself for another day. Nobody cared about the work, only keeping the job. That was how management set things up.

    About 30 million Americans work this way, live this way, at McJobs. These situations are not unique to any one place or region. After all, Walmart has more than 2 million employees. If that company were an army, it would be the second largest military on the planet, just behind China. It is, in fact, the largest overall employer in the country and the biggest employer in 25 states. When Walmart won’t pay more than minimum, it hurts. When it rains like that, we all get wet. This is who we are now.

    I Was Minimum

    It’s time to forget the up-by-the-bootstraps fantasies of conservative economists bleating on Fox. If any of it was ever true, it’s certainly not true anymore. There is no ladder up, no promotion path in the minimum-wage world. You can’t work “harder” because your hours are capped, and all the jobs are broken into little pieces anyone could do anyway. Minimum wage is what you get; there are no real raises. I don’t know where all the assistant managers came from, but not from among us.

    I worked in retail for minimum wage at age 16 and again at 53. In that span, the minimum wage itself rose only by a few bucks. What changed, however, is the cast of characters. Once upon a time, minimum-wage jobs were filled with high school kids earning pocket money. In 2014, it’s mainly adults struggling to get by. Something is obviously wrong.

    In his State of the Union Address, President Obama urged that the federal minimum wage be raised to $9 an hour. He also said that a person holding down a full-time job should not have to live in poverty in a country like America.

    To the president I say, yes, please, do raise the minimum wage. But how far is nine bucks an hour going to go? Are so many of us destined to do five hours of labor for the cell phone bill, another 12 for the groceries each week, and 20 or 30 for a car payment? How many hours are we going to work? How many can we work?

    Nobody can make a real living doing these jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage, not in the way Americans once defined raising a family when our country emerged from World War II so fat and happy. And you can’t build a nation on vast armies of working poor with nowhere to go. The president is right that it’s time for a change, but what’s needed is far more than a minimalist nudge to the minimum wage. Maybe what we need is to spend more on education and less on war, even out the tax laws and rules just a bit, require a standard living wage instead of a minimum one. Some sort of rebalancing. Those aren’t answers to everything, but they might be a start.

    People who work deserve to be paid, but McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson last year took home $13.7 million in salary, with perks to go. If one of his fry cooks put in 30 hours a week, she’d take in a bit more than $10,000 a year — before taxes, of course. There is indeed a redistribution of wealth taking place in America, and it’s all moving upstream.

    I got lucky. I won my pension fight with my “career” employer, the State Department, and was able to crawl out of the minimum-wage economy after less than a year and properly retire. I quit Bullseye because I could, one gray day when a customer about half my age cursed me out for something unimportant she didn’t like, ending with “I guess there’s a reason why people like you work at places like this.” I agreed with her: There is a reason. We just wouldn’t agree on what it was.

    I’m different now for the experience. I think more about where I shop, and try to avoid big places that pay low wages if I can. I treat minimum-wage workers a little better, too. If I have to complain about something in a store, I keep the worker out of it and focus on solving the problem. I take a bit more care in the restroom not to leave a mess. I don’t get angry anymore when a worker says to me, “I really can’t do anything about it.” Now I know from personal experience that, in most cases, they really can’t.

    Above all, I carry with me the knowledge that economics isn’t about numbers, it’s about people. I know now that it’s up to us to decide whether the way we pay people, the work we offer them, and how we treat them on the job is just about money or if it’s about society, about how we live, who we are, the nature of America. The real target now should be to look deeply into the apartheid of dollars our country has created and decide it needs to change. We — the 99 percent, anyway — can’t afford not to.




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