The Pentagon has never been audited. That's astonishing

The Guardian

On Thursday, Donald Trump released a preliminary budget proposal that calls for a $52bn spike in military spending. But just last December, a Washington Post investigation found that the Pentagon had buried a report that outlines $125bn in waste at the Department of Defense. That gap between lawmakers’ calls to blindly increase spending at DoD versus those of internal auditors to curtail its waste isn’t a new problem, and it’s one that, without pressure, won’t be resolved any time soon.

That’s because although it’s required to by law, the DoD has never had an audit, something every American person, every company and every other government agency is subject to. The result is an astounding $10tn in taxpayer money that has gone unaccounted for since 1996.

‘The gap between lawmakers’ calls to blindly increase spending at DoD versus those of internal auditors to curtail its waste isn’t a new problem.’ President Trump’s budget proposals focusing on the Department of Defense. Photograph: Jon Elswick/AP

‘The gap between lawmakers’ calls to blindly increase spending at DoD versus those of internal auditors to curtail its waste isn’t a new problem.’ President Trump’s budget proposals focusing on the Department of Defense. Photograph: Jon Elswick/AP

“Over the last 20 years, the Pentagon has broken every promise to Congress about when an audit would be completed,” the director of the Audit the Pentagoncoalition Rafael DeGennaro told the Guardian. “Meanwhile, Congress has more than doubled the Pentagon’s budget.”

Legislation in the early 1990s demanded that all government agencies had annual audits, but the Pentagon has exempted itself without consequence for 20 years now, telling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that collecting and organizing the required information for a full audit is too costly and time-consuming.

In the meantime, the GAO and Office of the Inspector General (IG) have published an endless stream of reports documenting financial mismanagement: $500m in aid to Yemen lost here, $5.8bn in supplies lost there, $8,000 spent on helicopter gears that really cost $500.

As reports and news articles about waste and abuse at the Pentagon pile up, prominent voices from across the political spectrum – from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz to Grover Norquist – are expressing support for a full audit of DoD. In a 2013 video message to the whole of the defense department, then secretary of defense Chuck Hagel told employees that the department’s noncompliance was “unacceptable”. During this past election cycle, both the Democratic and Republican platforms called for the Pentagon’s audit.

But despite broad support, the issue has remained stagnant in Washington. “I really can’t figure it out,” Democratic party representative for California Barbara Lee told the Guardian. When legislators get around to tackling waste, they “go after domestic agencies and community organizations, but they never go after the Pentagon,” she said. Since 2013, she has introduced bipartisan legislation that would financially penalize DoD for not receiving a clean audit.

“Quite frankly, they should have been audit-ready decades ago, after Congress passed the initial audit law in the early 90s,” Republican representative for Texas Michael Burgess, co-sponsor of the Audit the Pentagon Act along with Lee, told the Guardian. People have “accepted that the Department of Defense is expensive and that that’s how business has to be done. But I don’t accept that.”

Others say the problem goes beyond bureaucracy. William Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, and he says private contractors have found a way to make use of the Pentagon’s struggle to get its books in order. Contractors, he says, will “periodically intervene to try to stop practices that would make them more accountable”.

Specifically, the defense industry has sought to weaken the office of the director, operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) at the Department of Defense, which evaluates weapons systems before they’re manufactured on a larger scale. “It’s one of the few places that’s revealed a lot of problems,” says Hartung. The DOT&E, for example, has uncovered flaws in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet programamong a slew of other contracts. “The concept is: benefit from a dysfunctional system because they can charge however much they want and there’s not a lot of quality control,” says Hartung.

Another issue is the proximity between DoD and the private sector, something that appears to touch even the department’s inspector general’s office. In 2014, the Pentagon celebrated the Marine Corps’ success at being the first military agency to pass an audit. But a year later it was found that the private accounting firm hired to carry out the audit, Grant Thornton, had not been thorough. The Marine Corps had desperately wanted to achieve a “clean” status, due to pressure from then defense secretary Leon Panetta to get its books in order.

In a scathing response to the debacle, Republican senator for Iowa Chuck Grassley said that the actions of the DoD IG showed a “lack of independence and flagrant disregard for audit ethics”, calling the deputy IG for auditing “a Grant Thornton lapdog”.

Washington’s revolving door also touches the agency, with a number of high-profile individuals moving to the private sector after leaving their jobs, something that is perfectly within the law and government regulations.

In the end, Hartung says that the military’s stature and almost holy status make focusing on accountability difficult. If lobbying doesn’t work, he says, they can always “wrap themselves in the flag and say this is necessary for defense. But if people don’t poke into the details,” they won’t “find out that, in fact, not every penny being spent is sacrosanct”.

CISA Isn’t Cybersecurity: It’s Cyber-Surveillance

Defending Dissent

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2014 (CISA) by a 14–1 vote. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) stood alone against the bill, saying in a statement March 13 that it “does not include adequate privacy protections” and is simply another “surveillance bill by another name.”

The bill is supposed to encourage data collecting and sharing between private companies and government agencies in an effort to prevent cyberattacks on American IT infrastructures. Opponents, however, are arguing that the legislation’s true mission is to forge a legal framework that makes it easier for the state, along with corporate entities, to surveil internet users and record their communications.

Critics have called CISA the ‘zombie bill’ because Congress has for years regularly proposed legislation that would enable the government to skirt private computer users’ encryption codes that make it more difficult for it to collect information, most notably the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2013 (CISPA). That bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are trying again. They’re using the hacking of Sony Pictures in late 2014 as well as the larger threat of terrorism to justify reviving the old legislation. President Obama joined the effort last month, when he signed CISA’s counterpart as an executive order that would also create information-sharing hubs that bring the private and public sectors together. (The differences lie in the dozen or so amendments within CISA that were approved last week but haven’t yet been made public.)

“I see CISA as another attempt at expanding all the powers that the government already has,” former National Security Agency agent and whistleblower J. Kirk Wiebe told Dissent NewsWire. In his 30 years of experience at the NSA, Wiebe says, the one tactic the secretive agency has used most persistently has been fighting encryption keys. He says that the threats the state constantly cites are nothing but a “ploy by the government to put out plausible rationale why people’s data should not be encrypted.”

The battle over encryption, Wiebe insists, stands at the heart of the larger debate over privacy and surveillance. It began after the 9/11, attacks when he along with a handful of other colleagues—among them Thomas Drake, Ed Loomis, and William Binney — filed a formal complaint over waste within the agency. As a senior analyst, Wiebe had worked on an in-house ‘connect the dots’ surveillance program that protected users’ identities. “Human beings didn’t have to see the underlying identifying data,” he says about the program he worked on. “All they would see is a dot and line connecting the two points.”

The IT system, he says, worked with the identities of those people whose information was being collected. But the system would automatically encrypt the data — one of the main architects of the program, William Binney, was able to do this by writing an algorithm that used identifiers within the equation to connect one piece of communication with another, but then kept the identity anonymous through encryption in the final outcome. Human intelligence was separate from the process. “Encryption does not prevent you from doing intelligence,” Wiebe says. If a threat is detected and an identity must be attained, he argues, “then I’d bring in judicial courts. I’d bring in the Supreme Court too.” The lack of any system of checks and balances has allowed the government to illegally tap into private phone records, steal encryption keys, and intercept and bug computer hardware devices that had been shipped to companies. In fact, unlawful activity at the NSA became so commonplace that employees started to spy on their partners, one of the only violations the agency openly acknowledged and condemned.

The new CISA bill, like Obama’s parallel proposal, would do nothing to address these underlying problems. It would change the structure of information-collecting slightly: Much of it would go through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), instead of intelligence agencies like the NSA. But one element that has been missing from each cybersecurity bill is encryption regulations, which Wiebe says are “the single most important step to protecting us from surveillance.” The lack of concern for privacy and encryption is reinforced by fresh provisions within CISA that seek to expand government surveillance in areas that have nothing to do with cybersecurity. One provision, for example, says that shared information can be used for “a wide range of crimes involving any level of physical force, including those that involve no threat of death or significant bodily harm.” The New America Foundation’s Robyn Greene outlined the elements within CISA that she says make it look more like a “cyber-surveillance” bill more than anything else: companies being able to monitor their users’ activities; requiring DHS to automatically disseminate all the data it collects to the NSA; and permitting companies to retaliate against any users it deems responsible for a cyberattack.

A coalition of open government groups (including the Defending Dissent Foundation) had asked the committee to reject the bill because it creates an unnecessary exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and “would increase the intelligence community’s access to Americans’ personal information without adequate legal protections against the use of “cyber-threat” information to investigate whistleblowers or conduct broad surveillance unrelated to specific cybersecurity threats.” The final CISA bill, which includes about a dozen amendments, has not been made public yet. It’s unclear whether it’ll pass the Senate. That vote will most likely take place mid-April. In the meantime, Wiebe says, he worries that possible political developments—the Iran negotiations, the rise of ISIS, or continued cyberattacks on the United States—could be manipulated by politicians to ram the legislation through Congress. “I could even see a scenario where the government knowingly lets a situation like this happen as an excuse to expand control,” he says. “I’m not gonna tell you that the people running these agencies are out to control the American people. It’s that there’s nothing to prevent that from happening… .That sends chills down my back.”


“Everyone is corrupt, I’ve come to learn”

John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who blew the whistle on Bush’s torture program and is now in prison, sent an open letter to Edward Snowden last week warning him not to trust the FBI.

“DO NOT,” Kiriakou wrote, “under any circumstances, cooperate with the FBI. FBI agents will lie, trick, and deceive you. They will twist your words and play on your patriotism to entrap you. They will pretend to be people they are not – supporters, well-wishers, and friends – all the while wearing wires to record your out-of-context statements to use against you. The FBI is the enemy; it’s part of the problem, not the solution.”

John Kiriakou   (AP/Cliff Owen)

John Kiriakou (AP/Cliff Owen)

These are the words of a registered Republican who voted for Gary Johnson, whom the Rosenberg Fund for Children denied a grant, informing him that he wasn’t “liberal enough,” Kiriakou says, for the award — and who last year received a birthday card from Jerry Falwell Jr.

Kiriakou is the first CIA veteran to be imprisoned. It was after he blew the whistle on Bush’s torture program that the CIA, FBI and Justice Department came down on him, at first charging him with aiding the enemy and later convicting him of disclosing the identities of undercover colleagues at the CIA.

The FBI raided his house in the process. They took his computers. They also took his family photos because, they said, he could have embedded secret messages in them.

“I did not start this thing with the idea that I was going to be a whistle-blower,” Kiriakou told Salon in December, two months before being sent off to a low-security prison in Loretto, Pa., with a 30-month sentence.

I interviewed Kiriakou for about an hour and half at that time, a couple of months before he went to prison, waiting to publish it until he was well into serving his sentence. The idea was to outline the slope of his descent – his journey from the powerful to the powerless.

“In this weird, roundabout way,” he told me then, “the Justice Department, the FBI and the CIA made me the anti-torture guy, which I never set out to be … But over the years,” despite the initial intentions, “my feelings have grown stronger and stronger” against torture, “that torture is not right under any circumstances.”

Recruited by the CIA while in graduate school, Kiriakou spent most of his life on the side of the establishment, leading raids against top al-Qaida officials in Pakistan as the chief of counterterrorism operations, including the one in which Abu Zubaydah was captured.

He had said in an ABC interview with Brian Ross that al-Qaida members “hate us more than they love life,” that they wanted to kill every American and every Jew because, he said, it’s just who they are.

That was also the interview in which Kiriakou pissed off the power establishment, becoming the whistle-blower he had never set out to be. He was on Ross’ show defending himself against allegations that he, personally, had tortured Zubaydah. But what he didn’t know was that torture as a state policy had never been confirmed in any official capacity, even though everyone in Washington knew about it.

Five years before, in 2002, Kiriakou had never heard of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He’d just left Greece where he was doing counterterrorism work when the CIA decided to move him to a different office in Pakistan. In the interim, a fellow CIA officer approached Kiriakou and said that they were going to use some of these interrogation techniques on Zubaydah.

“I had never heard of waterboarding,” Kiriakou said. “So [the CIA officer] explained to me that it simulates drowning and that we’re gonna keep him up for nine, 10 days at a time, and we’re gonna put him in a dog cage, and – [Zubaydah] had this fear of bugs – we’re gonna put cockroaches in the cage. I said that wasn’t something I wanted to be involved in.”

Kiriakou was alarmed by the proposal. He consulted a senior agency officer who called it “torture,” Kiriakou said, and then told him “‘that this was a slippery slope, that someone would die and there would be a congressional investigation. Do you want that?’” the officer asked. “I said ‘no.’”

The officer would later deny that this conversation took place.

Kiriakou and other officers were told that the CIA rarely used these interrogation techniques. Internally, it was reported that Zubaydah had been waterboarded one time. It wasn’t until spring of 2009, five years after leaving the agency, that Kiriakou found out that was a lie. Zubaydah, in fact, had been waterboarded 83 times according to the inspector general’s report. They had tortured him before getting legal approval, “in anticipation of getting permission,” Kiriakou said.

“It was a coverup,” Kiriakou said. “Everyone is corrupt I’ve come to learn.”

The incident, coupled with all the travel, rubbed Kiriakou the wrong way and in 2004 he stepped down from his position.

“I resigned to spend more time with my kids,” he said. “I was tired of going off to Baghdad and Kabul and Yemen.”

Kiriakou worked as a consultant for the Big Four accounting firm Deloitte in the years following, before moving on to ABC News as a terrorism expert. With his security clearance gone, he fell out of the loop — until he got the phone call from Brian Ross.

“I had been out four, almost four years at that point,” Kiriakou said. “I had stopped paying attention to this kind of stuff. I was vaguely aware that Human Rights Watch had reported that prisoners had been waterboarded and Amnesty was talking about it.”

It was true that the public knew. But Kiriakou went too far when he detailed the approval process. Bush had been defending the administration by saying that any cases of torture were because of rogue officers.

“I said no, no, no. This had the signature of the president on it,” he said. “And not just the president but Condi Rice as national security advisor, John Ashcroft as the attorney general, George Tenet as director of the CIA and about a dozen lawyers from the National Security Council.

“And it wasn’t just that one day Tenet signed this paper and then they started torturing people,” Kiriakou said. “It was every single time they wanted to torture someone, they had to get the [Director of Central Intelligence] signature.”

“And so I confirmed it,” he told me, “confirmed that torture was a state policy and when I confirmed it, my whole life changed.”

The CIA quickly filed a crimes report with the Justice Department against Kiriakou for leaking top-secret information in the interview with ABC. “I read about it on CNN,” he said.

The Justice Department ended up dismissing the charges because the information, it declared, was already public knowledge. Kiriakou was relieved.

“We learned later,” Kiriakou told me, “that every time I gave a speech, every time I went on a TV show, every time I wrote an Op-Ed” – including one that appeared in the L.A. Times in 2008, for which his wife was called in and interrogated (it turns out the “top-secret” information the CIA accused Kiriakou’s wife of giving her husband was made available on Bolivia’s foreign ministry website) – the agency “would file another crimes report against me, even though I was getting this stuff cleared.”

The CIA was never concerned with protecting classified information. Had it been, the agency would have notified Kiriakou each time a crimes report was filed against him for talking about the torture program as a way of preventing him from continuing to do so. Instead it was encouraging him to keep talking until, during one interview or Op-Ed, he slipped up and said something they could use against him. They weren’t targeting classified information. They were targeting him.

In 2009, Kiriakou took the position of senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under John Kerry. His job was to investigate waste, fraud, abuse and illegality and he turned his attention to the 2001 Dasht-i-Leili massacre, in which an American-backed warlord had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Taliban soldiers when he ordered them to be crammed into metal containers and then loaded onto trucks bound for a prison in Shibarghan, Afghanistan.

A source had told Kiriakou that Americans wearing T-shirts and blue jeans oversaw the box-up of the prisoners.

President Bush announcing his nomination of Alberto Gonzales as the next U.S. Attorney General, November 10, 2004 (Wikipedia)

President Bush announcing his nomination of Alberto Gonzales as the next U.S. Attorney General, November 10, 2004 (Wikipedia)

“I wanted to know,” Kiriakou said, “were these guys CIA officers? If they weren’t, who were they? Were they Defense Department? Were they contractors? Who were these guys? And why didn’t they stop this from happening?

“I interviewed everybody,” Kiriakou said. “I interviewed Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff and Karl Ford, the assistant secretary, Pierre Prosper, the special rapporteur for human rights. I called Colin Powell.”

Six weeks later, Kiriakou got a phone call from John Kerry asking if he was investigating the CIA.

“I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ [He said,] ‘I want you to stop right now.’ I said ‘but we’ve got a story here. This is a serious situation.’ ‘I want you to stop right now,’” Kerry repeated. “So I stopped.”

Perturbed, Kiriakou moved on to another investigation dealing with a violation of the cover agreement between the CIA and State Department. He wrote a letter to the CIA asking why a woman included on the list of newly hired State Department officers was going undercover for the first time when she had been with the CIA for 25 years.

“Some time passed,” Kiriakou said, “and then a colleague comes into my office and he says, ‘You got a letter of response from the agency.’ I said, ‘I haven’t seen any letter.’ He said, ‘They classified it top-secret’ and I wasn’t cleared for top-secret. I said, ‘What’s it say?’ It says, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”

The harassment continued. In the summer of 2010, Kiriakou was having lunch with a foreign diplomat who proposed hiring him as a spy. The diplomat offered to pay him in cash if he could provide information on U.S. trade strategies.

Kiriakou refused the deal and reported the incident to the Senate Security Office. The FBI advised him to keep in touch with the diplomat and let him know that he would think about the offer. Kiriakou met with the diplomat five or six times, he says, before finding out that he was an FBI agent and had been trying to get incriminating statements from Kiriakou.

“He was trying to get me to say something to trap myself,” he said. “I didn’t bite.”

Eventually, the CIA and FBI gave up, not on Kiriakou but on charging him solely under the Espionage Act. In the two years that followed the incident with the foreign diplomat, the agencies put together a case against Kiriakou that accused him of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, a law that hadn’t sent anyone to prison in 27 years.

In January 2012, Kiriakou was charged and then, in April, finally indicted, losing his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee along with the pension that came with it. In September, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia closed its doors to the public because many of the testimonies, it said, contained classified information.

Kiriakou eventually pleaded guilty to one count of violating the IIPA. In its criminal complaint, the Justice Department suggested that Kiriakou had put CIA agents in danger when he disclosed their names to the New York Times, for which he was a source.

“I thought for the whole duration” of the trial, Kiriakou said, “that I was gonna win this thing and then I didn’t.

“I had to come up with something for my kids,” he said. “I said, ‘You know I’ve been in this fight with the FBI for a year. Well, I lost. And so my punishment is I have to go to Pennsylvania and teach bad guys how to get their high school diplomas.’ My 8-year-old started crying. I said, ‘You can come visit me any time you want. I’ll call every single day.’

“But an 8-year-old needs his father. This is the age where he wants to camp out in the backyard and go fishing.”

Kiriakou has published three letters since arriving at the prison in Loretto, including the one to Edward Snowden. The others chronicle life during his first few months there.

Already, he says, a corrections officer (or CO) has tried to pit him against a Muslim prisoner who, Kiriakou was told, is the uncle of the Times Square bomber. The Muslim prisoner was told separately that Kiriakou had gotten off the phone with Washington recently, with an order to kill him as the relative of a terrorist.

“It turns out that he’s an Iraqi Kurd from Buffalo, NY,” Kiriakou writes. “He was the imam of a mosque there” and was in prison for refusing to testify against his parishioners – the Lackawana 7. “He had nothing to do with terrorism,” he says. “Instead, we’re friendly, we exchange greetings in Arabic and English, and we chat.”

Now, Kiriakou faces regular abuse. He’s been introduced to the “shake-down,” whereby officers “trash all of our worldly possessions … COs can treat us like subhumans” here, he writes.

“At the beginning I thought it was personal,” Kiriakou said about his fight against the CIA, FBI and Justice Department, that “I had angered someone, that there was some personal vendetta against me. But as time has passed, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is institutional – there’s been so many personnel changes. There’s almost nobody left at the agency who was in a leadership position when I was there …

“The agency hates two things,” he finally told me. One “is if you resign.” And “the other if you talk to the press.

“I did both. So I wasn’t really one of them.”

Update:  It’s worth noting that Kiriakou is also the sixth whistleblower to be charged under the Obama administration. Snowden is the seventh. Those are more indictments than any other administration in history, despite Obama’s signing the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act into law last year.


Center for Auto Safety Dissatisfied With Chrysler’s Jeep Recall for study of responsive law

The nonprofit group The Center for Auto Safety says that Chrysler’s Jeeprecall, which the car manufacturer finally agreed to June 18 after an ongoing battle with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is insufficient and will not fix the vehicle’s defect. At issue is the placement of the Jeep’s fuel tank at the rear of the SUV; regulators say its position there presents a fire hazard if the car is struck from behind.

In response to a demand for action from the Center for Auto Safety and the NHTSA, as well as consumers, Chrysler has agreed to inspect 1.6 million of its Jeep models built between 1993 and 2007 and install a trailer hitch to protect the vehicles’ back end, free of charge. Owners of an additional million cars have the option to bring them in for an inspection.

But these services and upgrades will not help reduce the number of deaths that result from rear-end collision fires, Center for Auto Safety Executive Director Clarence Ditlow said in an interview last week.

“The trailer hitch,” he explained, “doesn’t provide any protection from the primary failure mode in these crashes, which is the nose of the striking car coming under the bumper and impacting the gas tank. If it goes under the bumper, it will go under the trailer hitch.”

The NHTSA reports that 51 people have died in rear-end collision fires in Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty models.

Chrysler Group disagreed with the NHTSA’s findings about the placement of the fuel tank, saying in a statementthat “the subject vehicles are not defective,” and “these Jeep vehicles have proven to be safe in operation and the Company’s analysis shows the incidents at the focus of this requestoccur less than one time for every million years of vehicle operation” (Chrysler’s emphasis).

Ditlow is also frustrated because Chrysler’s 2005 and 2008 Jeep models, for which it moved the fuel tank in front of the rear axle, have not been involved in any fires that resulted in deaths. This, for Ditlow, is evidence that it is the placement of the tank that poses a hazard to drivers of the other models. Chrysler, however, has refused to acknowledge any dangers relating to its Jeep vehicles.

The idea of installing a trailer hitch is a calculated PR stunt, Ditlow argued. “A trailer hitch, which provides incremental protection in low-speed crashes only, fits in with [Chrysler’s] strategy that the crashes that kill all the people are unsurvivable crashes,” he said. In other words, since trailer hitches help only in low-speed collisions, which have not been reported to kill anybody, the numbers will stay the same and give the impression that the recall did not really accomplish anything.

Ditlow contended that “if they admitted that putting a skid plate underneath [the fuel tank] worked,” because it cushions more than a trailer hitch, “it would protect against these higher speed crashes” and prove that Chrysler’s assessments of its vehicles were wrong.

“If Chrysler cared about Jeep owners,” he pointed out, “they would have done a recall that provided adequate protection in crashes up to at least 50 mph into the rear of the vehicle. It just shows that Chrysler doesn’t care.”


How American University Got Involved in Israel’s Public Interest for study of responsive law

Herman Schwartz was shaped by New Deal liberalism. He was born in 1931 and says that it was the emphasis on economic and social justice during that time that contributed to his moral upbringing and, eventually, his life as an attorney. Now 82, he teaches at American University’s Washington College of Law and is an adviser to the fellows enrolled in a program he created almost 30 years ago. The Israel-U.S. Civil Liberties Law Program trains Israeli and Palestinian lawyers in public interest law and then sends them back to Israel to practice what they have learned.

The program has snowballed and given vigor to the civil rights movement in Israel. Israeli newspaper Haaretz described the fellowship as “a quiet revolution” that “has changed the map of human rights in Israel.”

AP/Bernat Armangue

AP/Bernat Armangue

The idea came to Schwartz after a trip he took to Israel in 1983. “I figured I would look up people who were doing civil rights and civil liberties work as I had been doing,” he told me in his office at the Washington, D.C., school. “Turns out there were almost none. So I came back with this rather grandiose idea that we would train Israeli lawyers—Jewish and Palestinian. ... The school did something that is simply unheard of,” he continued, “which is to give me, for the program, free tuition for a fellow.” The program has since expanded to take on a second and sometimes a third student.

Whether they are promoting affordable housing, defending Negev Bedouins, litigating on behalf of the disabled, fighting the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which prevents family reunification between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, the 56 civil liberties program graduates are bringing what they’ve learned in the U.S. back to Israel.

Carmel Pomerantz, 28, and Samar Qudha Tannous, 38, the two fellows for the academic year 2012-13, say that because of the program, Washington has become the capital of public interest law for Israel. Washington-based nongovernmental organizations, they say, are exporting the tradition of civil rights in America to Israel, a country that, despite its own complex history, did not develop the same kind of robust social justice movement that evolved in the U.S.

It might be that Israel is so young, they say, or that the Knesset is not balanced out with state or regional powers that allow for opposition and discussion—a quality that, according to Tannous, allowed for the Little Rock, Ark., school integration crisis to be resolved and that subsequently fueled the 1960s civil rights movement.

Although public interest law continues to grow in Israel, Schwartz, Tannous and Pomerantz acknowledge that there have been some backward steps. The displacement of Palestinians for new settlements, the Nakba Law, which allows the Israeli finance minister to cut funding from organizations that mark the country’s independence day instead as “the catastrophe,” and continuing accusations of torture—progress sometimes ends up in the shadow of new human rights abuses.

“One of the things I’ve always felt is that people who try to make things better will lose most of the time,” Schwartz says, “because it always involves taking on powerful interests and the better, as they see it, is often at their expense.”

“There’s a wonderful line in a Joan Baez song addressed to Bob Dylan” called “To Bobby,” Schwartz says, “when he gave up his social conscience stuff and went into other things telling him to ‘come back.’ And there’s a line in which she sings ‘we’re still marching in the streets with little victories and big defeats.’ ”

“If you’re trying to make change,” Schwartz says, “that’s basically the story.”


"Incestuous:" The Dangers of Big Unaccountable Contractors

Policy Shop, Demos

In the wake of the National Security Agency scandal, the mainstream media is obsessing over Edward Snowden’s security clearance. It is asking, along with Senators from the Intelligence Committee, why a systems administrator at Booz Allen Hamilton had access to troves of top-secret documents and whether or not the vetting process for the other 1.4 million people with top-secret clearances is rigorous enough. The fear, the mainstream seems to be pushing on Americans, is that other leaks are in store.

But this is not the real debate. The notion that leaks are more likely with outsourcing, first off, is false. And the idea that they will increase in the future is speculation without reasonable evidence. What about Bradley ManningJohn KiriakouWilliam BinneyKirk WiebeEd Loomis, and Thomas Drake, all of them former government employees who’ve blown the whistle on fraud and abuse within the last 12 years? Snowden is the first major whistleblower from the private sector since the intelligence industry’s boom after 9/11.

This question, which the mainstream media has gobbled up, is a red herring. The real question is this: what happens to our nation’s national security operations, which are ideally conducted in the public’s interest, when they are handed over to corporations that are motivated by money?

Well, “it can cause bad decisions,” says Joe Newman, director of communications at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). The decisions of private firms, he says, are no longer “in the American public’s interests because you have companies that are worried about profits and answering to their boards of directors and shareholders. That’s not something we want in the decision-making process when you’re talking about issues that are vital to our national security.”

It is interesting, Newman notes, that, in the last 18 years, intelligence companies have been charged on hundreds of counts of misconduct but haven’t seen the same kind of scrutiny as they are seeing today.

Take the controversy over NSA’s Trailblazer Project, for example, an outsourced program that whistleblowers Binney, Wiebe, Loomis and Drake say wasted tens of millions — perhaps billions — of taxpayer dollars and, in the end, failed to detect the 9/11 plot. Furthermore, Wiebe, Binney, and Loomis, who designed the competing ThinThread program, assert that the implementation of ThinThread could have thwarted the terrorist attacks. Why, then, didn’t the NSA use the cheaper, yet more effective, program? It’s because Trailblazer was contracted out to a private firm and would have ballooned the NSA’s budget. ThinThread, by contrast, was designed “in-house” by Loomis and Binney. It wasn’t a moneymaking machine.

“The more money you have as an intelligence agency,” Loomis told me last November, “the more prestige you have...It’s the military-intelligence-industrial-complex. Congress approves the wasteful spending because all they want to do is get re-elected. They owe political favors to private sector campaign donors and thus open doors within the intelligence community to satiate their business interests. It’s just incestuous.”

Despite the incriminating evidence against Trailblazer, which shows that the NSA put big business interests in front of those of the public, the mainstream media has chosen not to cover the issue and the government has refused to investigate the allegations of its four former high-level NSA employees. 

“These [private intelligence] companies are so big,” Newman says, “that when they do make mistakes the government can’t do anything to punish them because some of [the government’s] operations would collapse. Companies know that, and they often use that knowledge as the cost of doing business — that they’re going to get a little fine, a slap on the wrist — and then they just work that into their costs…It creates this culture where corners can be cut.”

So far there is no evidence that Snowden’s leaks, along with those of Manning, Kiriakou, and the NSA whistleblower group, have posed or do pose any danger to national security. Indeed, Snowden carefully chose what he would leak and then filtered them through one of the most respected newspapers in the world, The Guardian.

The persecution of Snowden is, as professor Christopher Pyle said yesterday in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, an attempt to protect the special interests of the military-intelligence-industrial complex.

“The fourth amendment,” Pyle said, “which protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, only binds the government. It doesn’t bind corporations and that’s a serious problem. The reason we have privatization of prisons, in some ways, is for governments to escape liability. They put the liability on private companies,” who then “charge liability as an operating cost.”  


The Business of Standing in Line for study of responsive law

Eric Hopkins paced up and down a hallway in the Dirksen Senate Office Building two weeks ago in front of 25 people who were standing in line for a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Few of them knew what the public hearing was about. That’s because they were hired by, which paid them to reserve spots for lawyers, lobbyists, union members and anyone else willing to spend $32 an hour to secure a place in line. Hopkins works for the company as a coordinator. He makes sure that the line standers show up because if they are late, the company could lose spots, especially if the hearing is popular.

The business of line standing got some attention in March when The New York Times mentioned the practice in a piece about people trying to get tickets to watch the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on same-sex marriage. The mainstream media writes about line standing every few years, but only during landmark cases and hearings. The truth is that line standing goes on much of the time. It happens almost every day on Capitol Hill and some people are worried that it has weakened the influence the public has on committee hearings.

Shutterstock graphic of   a crowd  .

Shutterstock graphic of a crowd.

Line standing “verges on the absurd,” Hopkins concedes. “The German, Japanese, Aussie [press]—they love us because they think this is crazy, because it is crazy.”

Hopkins is cynical about the purpose of the business. But others see it as more than absurd—it’s malicious, they contend. It shuts out regular folk from what are supposed to be public hearings, they argue, while allowing big businesses and law firms to overrun them with their own people.

Hopkins was a line stander himself in the 1990s, when the business took off. For a long time it was bike messengers who would scramble through the doors of the Cannon House Office Building and the Senate’s Dirksen and Hart buildings to save spaces in line for others. People started to organize a business out of the new trend, and in a couple of years a few small, informal line standing companies sprouted up around Capitol Hill.

Three main enterprises devoted to waiting in line emerged as legitimate businesses in the following decade:, Washington Express and CVK.

Today, these companies shy away from using messengers and instead rely on the elderly, students and the homeless to be on call. Many of the line standers, Hopkins says, are recruited from the Community for Creative Non-Violence, Washington D.C.’s largest homeless shelter.

There has been some pushback in recent years from politicians who see line standing as a blemish on the democratic process. Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and former Rep. Barney Frank have criticized the practice. McCaskill formally addressed the issue in 2007 with a proposal to get rid of line standing on the Hill.

“We need to make sure this place is available to the people who own it and that’s the people of this country, not the lobbyists,” she said at the time.

Despite Congress’ explicit declaration that hearings ought to be “open to the public,” it hasn’t chosen to investigate the problems McCaskill pointed out. Members say that it doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction, even though it takes place in their buildings. McCaskill’s proposal never became law.

It has been an unwritten rule for decades that seats are given to the public on a first come, first served basis. But since there are no rules that specifically prohibit the practice of line standers—perhaps because politicians could not have imagined something like it 30 years ago—businesses continue to employ mostly the poor to ease the lives of the rich without facing any penalties.

In an open letter to McCaskill, owner Mark Gross rebuked the senator’s proposal, arguing that he’d simply found a way to make some extra money in our capitalist economy.

“Henry Ford used the assembly line to improve efficiency and create an enormous industry. Each worker on the line was responsible for his/her specific task. We provide linestanders, and they do that job well,” he wrote. “Division of labor makes America a great place to work. Linestanding may seem like a strange practice, but it’s ultimately an honest job in a free-market economy.”

A line stander named Teresa at the health and education hearing Hopkins was patrolling said that she’d been doing the work “since God”—a long time, apparently. But not all line standers are so lucky. Companies have many recruits on the back burner and often give workers less than a day’s notice when they’re needed. The job goes to whoever responds first. Line standing is an unreliable source of income for most and securing a gig still means only two or three hours of work at a time.

Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of anti-war group Code Pink who protested the confirmation hearing of CIA director John Brennan and then most recently interrupted President Obama’s counterterrorism speech May 23, has been condemning the line standing practice for years along with her colleague Tighe Barry.

“Now,” Benjamin says, seats are reserved “for people with the biggest pockets.” Barry adds that “people with limited access to their representatives,” which usually also means those with less money, “will be gone.”

Benjamin and Barry don’t see line standing as a conspiracy. They don’t believe that large corporations are actively trying to exclude the public.

The harm done from line standing “is not on purpose at all,” Barry says. “These companies are just making money and the line standers are just trying to make a buck. It’s just a business. But the result is keeping the public out.”


What Will Tighter Restrictions on Trade in Iran Do? for study of responsive law

AP/ Hasan Sarbakhshian, File

AP/ Hasan Sarbakhshian, File

A bipartisan team of U.S. senators has introduced a bill that would expand sanctions against Iran by targeting an estimated $100 billion worth of the country’s foreign currency reserves that are parked in overseas accounts.

The Iran Sanctions Loophole Elimination Act, authored by Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, and introduced May 8, seeks to penalize foreign financial industries that facilitate transactions with the Iranian government. 

“We are putting financial institutions around the world on notice,” thesenators said in a statement. “You must halt all foreign currency transactions on behalf of blacklisted Iranian banks and sectors or risk being cut off from the U.S. financial market.”

The new bill would sink Iran into its most severe era under U.S. sanctions, which were first enacted after the revolution in 1979. Restrictions on firms dealing with Iran were tightened in 1995 and then again in 2006. But the new measures, which would virtually eliminate Iran’s foreign currency reserves, are punitive enough, many say, to either topple the regime or spark another war in the Middle East.

But it is the poor in Iran who are suffering. Unemployment in Iran has risen to about 20 percent while inflation has surpassed 30 percent in the last year. The prices of staple foods such as chicken and rice have tripled in the last few decades, causing riots. Seventeen planes have crashed in the last 25 years, killing 1,500 people and pointing to a deteriorating infrastructure.

“This is a blunt instrument regardless of how many humanitarian products are allowed into the country,” Sammy Almashat, a health researcher at Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, says about the sanctions. “When you cripple the economy, it leads to mass unemployment, which we’ve already seen in the last year or two.”

It is impossible to guide the impact of sanctions, Almashat says, adding that you can’t control one sector of the economy without affecting the others. Humanitarian exemptions paint a pretty but false picture and the U.S. knows what it’s doing, he argues.

The health sector in Iran has been hit especially hard by the sanctions. Although Iran manufactures about 85 percent of its pharmaceutical drugs, many imported chemicals needed to make those medications have been restricted. The U.S. argues that Iran could use many of those chemicals to make weapons. This means that the supply of drugs for cancer, diabetes and hemophilia patients—among others—have plummeted.

Many pieces of medical equipment have also been restricted for the same reasons. They have been labeled as “dual-use technologies,” meaning they can be applied for civilian purposes, such as in hospitals, or for military ones. 

“At the end of the day, every serious observer recognizes that if you ruin the economy of a country, you inevitably make the people suffer,” Almashat explains.

It’s difficult to put a number on how many Iranians have died because of the sanctions. Iran is not an open government. The current regime doesn’t want the international community to think that it is helpless in the face of these measures, and consequently doesn’t acknowledge much of the suffering. We know, for example, that a 15-year-old boy died in November when he couldn’t get medicine for his hemophilia.

A month later, the Iranian government fired Health Affairs Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, its only female minister, when she publicly declared that sanctions were devastating the health system. Dastjerdi said that of the $2.4 billion approved for medicine imports, only a quarter had come through because foreign banks refused to finance the shipments.

“Medicine is more essential than bread,” she said on state TV. “I have heard that luxury cars have been imported with subsidized dollars but I don’t know what happened to the dollars that were supposed to be allocated for importing medicine.”

In the case of sanctions on Iraq, it wasn’t until 2003—13 years after they were first implemented—that the effects on the country were fully understood. In one indicator, about 1 million infants died during that period.

Iran’s more hefty economy has allowed it to plow through American sanctions thus far. It has a larger manufacturing base than Iraq did and provides nations such as India and China with much of their crude oil imports.

For the U.S., this means having to impose sanctions for a longer period of time and squeezing the Iranian economy every few years in an effort to pressure the dissenting regime. It is, in the end, the same kind of economic warfare it waged on Iraq, only over a longer period. 

The U.S. has very little interest in its purported goals of human rights and the halting of nuclear programs, according to Almashat. He points to the Oil-for-Food Program during the Iraq sanctions, which was fraught with widespread corruption, as evidence.

He says he does not consider sanctions a substitute for war.

“While the standard positions in the debate are framed as ‘war vs. sanctions,’ both positions represent a form of warfare—one military, the other economic—that both kill and injure the civilian population,” he says. “Rather than representing a principled alternative to war, sanctions serve as a complement and prelude to military action, as they weaken the country and thus pave the way for further aggression as they did in Iraq two decades ago.”

Almashat says the consequences of sanctions aren’t all that different from war itself. A lack of food, water and a proper infrastructure inevitably leads to people getting sick. He argues that they are under siege by an elusive enemy, one that uses economic restrictions instead of bullets to send innocents to the hospital.

It is easier, he says, to see the immorality in acts of terror like the Boston Marathon bombings than it is to recognize the horror in economic sanctions. At their core, both are designed to incite destruction and death, he contends.

The Boston bombings “were heinous acts that ... killed people immediately,” he says. “In the case of sanctions—and with complicity from the media—people don’t necessarily see the connection between the sanctions policy and the harm to civilians. But even a cursory look makes it evident that these are harmful to civilians in the same way the Boston bombings were, except on a much larger scale.”

As Almashat points out, it’s also bitterly ironic that the biggest supporter of free market economics should use its economic power to completely control and regulate a foreign nation.

“One wonders what would happen if another country were to prevent the U.S. from trading, especially on essential goods. We appropriately would consider that to be a form of warfare,” he concludes.


Relax, Relax at the Dying of the Light for study of responsive law

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas told his ailing father that he should fight encroaching death, not in the hope of evading it, but as something to which he would refuse to bow down. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day,” Thomas wrote in hisfamous poem. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he urged. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Shutterstock photo

Shutterstock photo

Sixty years later we live at odds with Thomas. There is little rage and vigor that comes after retirement. Usually it’s bingo. We play it in a sequestered nursing home or on a cruise ship during vacations that might as well be anywhere in the world. Either way, we don’t really care what’s going on outside. We’re old.

We move down to Florida if we can afford it. We can play golf every day and live in gated communities where real life is kept out. We can walk slowly on the beach and read lifestyle magazines that reduce living to health, happiness and saving money.

Indeed these are the tenets of AARP magazine, which is geared toward people ages 50 and up and boasts the largest circulation of any periodical in the world with 35 million readers, according to its Facebook page.

Every issue features a stream of celebrity gossip and self-help advice. The magazine divides people into two groups: those written about and those who worship them. Either way the message is the same: Life is good and success is about being happy.

If you’re angry at the way things are, there’s something wrong with you, the magazine seems to say. If you’re an activist past the age of 50, don’t be, it suggests. Relax and forget about the world.

The magazine wasn’t always so cynical. Eleven years ago, its articles were longer and focused on social issues. It avoided celebrity culture for the most part. The magazine addressed injustice, something it now calls “negativity.”

Look at the March/April 2000 issue, then called Modern Maturity. Although it featured Paul McCartney on the cover, the issue devoted a modest 200 words to his then-current life as a painter. It profiled writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Gore Vidal, a sculptor who was blinded by a grenade in Vietnam, and a mother who was arrested when she protested the NYPD’s killing of a 23-year-old unarmed West African immigrant.

AARP writers Beth Baker and Karen Reyes exposed corruption in the funeral home industry. Martin Sheen was pictured at a rally with a sign saying, “Sanctions will kill 170,000 Iraqi children.” And Kweisi Mfume was profiled for giving up the “prestige and perks of the House of Representatives to head a sullied and near-bankrupt organization,” the NAACP.

As we get older, Gene Cohen wrote in an article in that issue, “we feel more urgently the desire to find a larger meaning in the story of our lives through a process of looking back, summing up, and giving back. We also begin to see ourselves as ‘keepers of the culture,’ ” compelled to express ourselves in the form of “autobiography and personal story-telling, philanthropy, community activism, and volunteerism.”

A “midlife crisis,” Cohen argued, is “a powerful desire to create meaning in life.”

Today, it isn’t. A midlife crisis is when we start to retreat into fantasy. We become cultish in our search for products that make us young. Some get plastic surgery. Others try to stay preoccupied with mind games such as puzzles.

Take a look at the current issue of AARP magazine. There’s a Photoshopped image ofBeverly Johnson, the first African-American supermodel. She looks 20 but is really 60.

Flip to the back of the issue and you can read about billionaire David Murdock, who according to the article, is fascinated by “superfoods such as ‘berries, ginger and broccoli’ ” and wants research done on how they can reduce disease and elongate life.

Murdock is a real estate titan who chairs the board of Dole Food Co., which has a history of labor mistreatment and opposes the labeling of genetically modified foods.

“I’m interested in keeping myself alive forever,” he boasted.

Other articles include “Luxury Spas on a Budget,” “Four Ways to Fight Arthritis” and a piece about affordable health insurance that doesn’t mention insurance denials and price hikes on patented drugs.

“We give readers what they want, which is health, money saving and how to enjoy their lives,” AARP magazine editor Nancy Graham explained. When “we put celebrities on the cover we get a consistently high pickup.”

Graham, who’s been with the magazine for 10 years, said that articles that ask tough and uncomfortable questions are unpopular. The general tone of the magazine is optimistic, she insisted.

“We’ve done covers that are more serious and have lines that are more like ‘fear’ or ‘depression’ and, boy the pickup rate plunges because that’s not why our readers come to us,” she reasoned. “They don’t come to us to be reminded about everything they’re afraid of. ... They want stories and feel-good stuff.

“We’re not a policy magazine,” Graham added. “If we wrote policy stories we would not be read. And if we’re not read than nothing we write really matters.”

Yet older people are some of the most depressed in America, according to a string of studies. Those who are 65 and older constitute 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for 16 to 25 percent of the suicides.

Contrary to what many believe, depression and higher rates of suicide are not a natural part of growing older.

“Most people think sadness is a hallmark of depression,” Martha L. Bruce, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College, told The New York Times. “But more often in older people it’s anhedonia—they’re not enjoying life. They’re irritable and cranky. ... Many older people despair over the quality of their lives at the end of life.”

Although clinical major depression is a main precursor to suicide, loneliness is significant. Men in particular have a hard time dealing with social isolation because they feel useless,reports find.

Americans don’t like people who don’t have a purpose. If you’re retired, you better have worked and saved enough money to stay alive and out of poverty.

According to Sally Brown of the Gray Panthers—a social justice advocacy group that emphasizes cooperation between older and younger generations—it’s a fear of death that fuels our tendency to dehumanize the elderly.

“We learn from the time that we’re little that old people are all physically feeble, mentally feeble and that you don’t want to grow old. People fear being old. They fear dying.”

It’s easier, Brown said, to “hide them off or get rid of them,” to tell them “that the only thing that matters as they retire is to play golf and have fun and protect their own personal interests.”

It’s absurd, she continued, that those who have lived the most of life are segregated in nursing homes and told to occupy themselves with Sudoku and television. The second part of life is a culmination of the first, she argued. It ought to be more profound and reflective. It should be a period of thoughtful sorrow, during which seniors can contextualize life’s pain and teach others how to do the same rather than to sink into despair.

“As you age,” she pointed out, “you figure out that the crises you had when you were younger build and build until you realize they’re a natural part of life.” They ought “to be embraced.”

Americans are growing weaker in confronting the reality of death, she noted. As we retreat further and further into a world of fantasy, to the point where life is about pleasure, looking good and funding science projects that help us live forever, the barriers we erect grow bigger.

These walls are “huge in our psyches,” contended Brown, “and we come to believe them so much that we live them out ourselves. It’s a very unfortunate way for us to deal with the latter part of our lives.

“It’s naive to say that everything’s hunky dory. If we only look at the good stuff—and it’s a little like racism in that if you don’t talk about it it’ll go away—it doesn’t get us anywhere.”

In AARP magazine, there is no mention of the Third World, global warming, corporate crime, war or our crisis in education—as if older people shouldn’t care.

“There’s no mention of people like Harry Kelber, a long-time labor organizer who died a few weeks ago, or Jeno Paulucci, the businessman who hired the less fortunate — handicapped people, ex-convicts, Native Americans — and offered them living wages.”

“If there was more unity” on these issues, Brown said, “people in their 20s wouldn’t be scared to death to get old.”


There Are No More Corporate Criminals

Policy Shop, Demos

Panelists at the annual Corporate Crime Reporter Conference in Washington, D.C. Friday said they were concerned that the Justice Department is abandoning full criminal prosecutions of financial industries in favor of Deferred and Non Prosecution Agreements (DPAs and NPAs), which usually involve a fine and a set of conditions that must be followed. The company in exchange does not get prosecuted for criminal activity.

DPAs and NPAs exploded in the 2000s and have redefined the legal system in which financial corporations operate. Twenty years ago, the Justice Department had two choices, which it calls ‘up or down decisions’: it could prosecute a company or not. 

Now, agreements fill the space in between these two options and allow the Justice Department more flexibility in how it grapples with illegal activity in the financial sector.

Denis McInerney, a deputy assistant general for the Criminal Division and panelist at last week’s conference, is a defender of these agreements. The ‘up or down decisions,’ he says, do not involve compromise and reduce the Justice Department’s actions to two extremes. 

“You either indict or ignore companies,” he says. “There’s no middle ground.” DPAs and NPAs, he says, allows the Department to monitor and influence a company’s future actions. 

But these agreements, says David Uhlmann, another panelist and former chief of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section who is now a law professor at the University of Michigan, are now weak and act like a membership fee companies can pay to continue fraudulent behavior.

“If the Justice Department believes that a criminal prosecution is warranted,” he says, “it should bring charges. I’m not suggesting that there is no punishment [with DPAs and NPAs]. What I’m saying is that there is less deterrence, less punishment.”

Uhlmann points out that these settlements are unique to the Criminal Division. The divisions of Environment and Natural Resources, Tax and Antitrust, for example, issued fewer than 20 DPAs and NPAs between 1992 and 2013, according to figures that were compiled at the University of Virginia School of Law. The Criminal Division, on the other hand, entered into about 100. 

Many, Uhlmann says, are unwarranted. The USBC scandal from December of 2012 is the most recent illustration of how serious offenses, which were repeated many times over a period of five years in this case, are largely ignored. Media extolled the record fine of $1.9 billion that USBC had to pay as a part of its settlement. 

But that won’t bankrupt HSBC, a company that dealt directly with Mexican drug cartels in an effort to launder money it received from Iran. In fact, it doesn’t change much of anything in the company—HSBC’s chief executive Stuart Gulliver received a £2 million bonus in March. 

The exceptional treatment of crime on Wall Street, Uhlmann says, distorts what he calls the “expressive value” of law enforcement. 



“We send a very strong and important message when we label conduct as criminal,” he says. DPAs and NPAs offer “no guilty plea. There is no sentence. We take something essential away” from the justice system.

The agreements are fueled by the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Consent Decree, which allows financial corporations to “neither admit nor deny” wrongdoing in the settling of a case. The SEC, using its own discretion, can choose not to prosecute if it finds that the costs of litigation are too high and not worth its time. 

It’s a useful tool for minor offenses. But these decrees are now regularly used and shield financial companies from admitting to any alleged crimes. Many judges argue that if there is evidence pointing to illegal activity the SEC ought to be required to litigate. 

“Parties settle for a variety of reasons,” Judge Marrero said at a hearing in New York last month when he was asked to approve a $600 million settlement between the SEC and CR Intrinsic Investors, a unit of the hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors. “Among them to avoid undue expense, undue business exposure, to save the cost of approving culpability. A government agency may deem it appropriate to agree that the defendants not admit or deny allegations in the complaint.”

“But that too needs to be put into context,” he continued. “A defendant charged with, for example, wrongful conduct amounting to $10 may be prepared to settle for $3 if not allowed to admit or deny the allegations. At the same time, the agency may deem it appropriate to settle if it would cost $5 to litigate and there is a risk of losing. But there is something counterintuitive in a party agreeing to settle a case for $600 million that it might cost it let’s say $1 million to defend and litigate if it truly did nothing wrong.”

In other words it is suspicious that a company would settle for hundreds of millions of dollars when the purpose of the consent decree is to avoid prosecutions that are minor and not worth pursuing. A huge settlement like CR Intrinsic Investors means that there probably was wrongdoing, but in the end there is no formal charge and little media attention — a company “neither admitting nor denying” something is not very exciting. 

In the end, says panelist and president of Public Citizen Robert Weissman, “the approach is failing. Almost all of the pharmaceutical cases involve repeat players,” he says about companies that violated laws, paid fines and then violated the laws again without really changing the way they do business. “HSBC was a repeat player. Barclays was a repeat player. Not only is there no broad deterrent effect [with DPAs and NPAs], evidenced by massive corporate wrongdoing, but there’s not a specific deterrent effect because the same companies engage in the same kinds of misconduct.”


Wall Street Is Killing Dodd-Frank One Regulation at a Time for study of responsive law

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce releaseda letter this month outlining the changes it would like to see made to the Dodd-Frank Act, whose full implementation has been delayed for almost three years now. The chamber’s Fix, Add, Replace (FAR) agenda to alter Dodd-Frank insists that Congress’ already compromised attempt to avoid another financial meltdown is too ambitious. The law is failing, the chamber says, because it aimed to tackle too much.

“Trying to eliminate all risks and risk taking will hinder our ability to fund new ideas, startups, and expansion in our Main Street economy,” chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue wrote on the group’s Free Enterprise website. “Reasonable risk taking drives innovation, jobs and growth.”

Shutterstock photo of a   bill fragment with blood spots  .

Shutterstock photo of a bill fragment with blood spots.

The FAR plan advises Congress to “establish checks and balances for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” which means the chamber wants bipartisan leadership at a regulator the group fears could be headed by someone like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or former Commodity Futures Trading Commission head Brooksley Born, both of whom are critical of Wall Street.

The chamber also wants to weaken whistle-blower laws that it believes “undermine strong corporate compliance programs” and to “streamline regulators through consolidation,” in essence downsizing regulatory agencies and banning mandatory audit firm rotations—a measure that prevents auditors from getting too comfy with the companies they oversee.

Finally, the chamber’s agenda aims to put a stop to “disincentives for investment” like the Financial Transaction Tax and to overturn Dodd-Frank’s Volcker Rule, which limits the kind of speculation that led to the 2008 economic meltdown.

The FAR proposal is targeting the vestiges of Dodd-Frank, which was mostly gutted last year when Republicans passed nine separate bills that left the act toothless. Further weakening financial reform, Reps. Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Spencer Bachus as well as other Republicans in Congress struck down measures that would have required big banks to put money in a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation fund to be used for a bailout rather than relying on taxpayer money.

In addition to pushback from the chamber and legislators, Dodd-Frank’s rollout has been slowed by a team of lawyers headed by Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, so the attorneys have time to strike down the pillars of the act one by one. They forced lawmakers to redraw position limits, which regulate how much of the commodities market speculators can control, and delay the Volcker Rule’s implementation until 2014.

“I would hope the agencies are taking to heart the potential consequences for Dodd-Frank rules,” a threatening Eugene Scalia said of regulators in 2011 after winning a lawsuit that shot down the proxy rule, which would have made it easier for shareholders to nominate company directors and help prevent corruption and overpayment. 

At one of those agencies, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, regulators have been “scared into making rules and regulations that are weak or ineffective,” Commissioner Bart Chilton said last year in reaction to the backlash, “because we are overly concerned about what we call ‘litigation risk.’ ”

But the most recent blow to Dodd-Frank, as if it hasn’t suffered enough, is the sequester, which will weaken most regulatory agencies. The FAR effort is evidence of a financial sector that is unwilling to accept the most minor reforms. Even more disconcerting is that nothing is being done to improve a system that allowed the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. If all the mechanisms are the same, we should expect another collapse.


Americans Suffer While Finance Tax Waits for Congress’ Attention for study of responsive law

More than a thousand people gathered in Washington, D.C.’s Farragut Square on Saturday to demand that a financial transaction tax be placed on derivatives and other forms of speculation. The proposed tax on financial transactions, detailed in a bill Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., introduced to Congress a week ago, would generate more than $300 billion a year in revenue, thereby doing away with the need for the sequester currently forcing across-the-board budget cuts.

Shutterstock photo of   a man holding money  .

Shutterstock photo of a man holding money.

The Financial Transaction Tax, or Robin Hood Tax, has a broad base of support. Nurses, environmentalists, union workers, and people living with HIV/AIDS, for example, spoke at the rally on behalf of Americans who have been exploited at the expense of profit on Wall Street. The tax resonates with many Americans because of its simplicity and concrete purpose—it takes a modest percentage of profits from a multitrillion dollar market on Wall Street and uses that revenue to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure that allowed financial corporations to generate their wealth in the first place.

Transaction taxes aren’t new. The United States had one from 1914 to 1966. In 1932, it was more than doubled to 0.05 percent to help recovery after the Great Depression. Today, more than 40 countries have a transaction tax, with 11 in the European Union, including Germany and France.

After 1966, the tax was eliminated and replaced with a modest Financial Speculation Tax that now finances the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, two agencies Wall Street emaciated in the following decades.

The transaction tax is also meant to rein in speculative trading and help prevent financial bubbles that in the last 15 years have become a chronic problem.

“It’s actually a good, old-fashioned economic solution,”  Jared Bernstein, former chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden,wrote in support of the tax. “Internalize the negative externalities of bad risk pricing and volatility but making it more expensive to lurch. ... It would also raise some much needed revenue which, if I’m right, we’re going to need the next time the herd runs off the cliff ... together.”

Sixty percent of Americans support a transaction tax, including such people as Warren Buffett, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Summers and the members of The Boston Globe editorial board.

“As Obama and other policymakers contemplate far-reaching changes to entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security,” The Boston Globe editorialized in 2011, “a financial transaction tax—which would simultaneously raise money and deter another crisis—has to be part of the discussion.”

Although we do not yet have a financial transaction tax, President Obama is moving forward with cuts to social programs, public services, Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security.

At the rally Saturday, speakers said that cuts to any sector of the economy were an assault on the general public.

“We’re losing transit as a result of what’s happened to our economy, as a result of the fact that our government has seen fit to bail out banks but not people,” Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley explained to the crowd of protesters wearing Robin Hood hats. “Let me tell you, there’s something perverse in a nation that sees fit to slash transit services to people who need it, at a time when people are losing their jobs and have fewer cars.

“When I was growing up,” he continued, “when I was in school, they talked about citizenship because we were citizens. But somewhere along the line they turned us into consumers and then taxpayers, as if the only role we serve in life is to be angry taxpayers, angry at everybody else who is struggling in this country.”

A growing private sector and shrinking public one does not bode well for people who have little economic value. Those who depend on food stamps, affordable housing, Medicaid, Medicare and other forms of government assistance are the first to feel that shift’s pinch.

In the most recent study on poverty-related deaths, researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that 875,000 people died in the U.S. as a result of social factors such as poverty and income inequality in 2000, when income disparity was much smaller than it is today.

“People living with HIV and AIDS depend on medication to live,” activist Jose Demarco told the demonstrators, speaking on behalf of the sick who cannot afford patented drugs. “Our fate is miserable, slow, painful deaths. This year the budget did not include money for AIDS drugs. What are we supposed to do? Die.”


Abolish the Minimum Wage? It’s No Fantasy for study of responsive law

Free market advocates tried to convince an audience at Washington, D.C.‘s Burke Theater last week that the minimum wage should be abolished.

Shutterstock/  Minimum wage photo

Shutterstock/Minimum wage photo

James Dorn of the Cato Institute and popular economist Russ Roberts faced Jared Bernstein from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Karen Kornbluh, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, in an Oxford-style debate facilitated by the organization Intelligence Squared.

The premise—Abolish the Minimum Wage—is far from the current mainstream debate. Since its creation in 1938, the minimum wage has been venerated. For years, public discussion has focused on raising it, and although such increases are a constant point of contention between Democrats and Republicans, people have rarely questioned the rule’s existence.

But the deregulation of government over the past 15 years, now coupled with the rise of an unforgiving libertarianism on the right, has allowed lawmakers to re-examine programs and policies that haven’t been touched for decades—the Glass-Steagall Act separating banks and investment firms as well as federal welfare are gone. Now Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the minimum wage are threatened. 

The slow bulldozing of these government protections lends a prescience to the debate on minimum wage. One day the United States, which two years ago could have never anticipated today’s proposed cuts, might have to confront the issue seriously.

Labor, Roberts and Dorn argue, is a commodity and regulating any commodity is an assault on the tenets of free market capitalism. As with any commodity, labor is subject to the rules of supply and demand and to interfere with that economic model, they say, is to impede the market’s ability to self-regulate. In short, if labor becomes more expensive, there will be less of it.

“You don’t need a special theory of the labor market or a degree in economics to understand that making workers artificially more expensive makes it harder for them to find work,” Roberts said.

Roberts, who noted that he pays his maid twice the minimum wage, believes that job alternatives, rather than the federal rule, keep companies from lowering the wage to, say, $3 an hour.

“It is those alternatives that protect [my maid] from the greed of employers,” he said. “And alternatives force employers to treat employees well. Most of us don’t need legislation to protect us in the labor force.”

Despite the figures on poverty, inequality, segregation, and sexism—women make 7 percent less than men in the same job positions—Roberts and Dorn prefer a freer free market. They stick to their theoretical models. Unfortunately, those don’t reflect reality.

In a recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, author John Schmitt plots all of the studies that measured how minimum wage increases change unemployment levels. He found that some were negative, some positive. But the dots hover around zero.

In addition, the minimum wage has been raised 22 times and 19 states have increased it beyond federal levels with no negative effect on the economy as a whole.

Meanwhile, 17 million children have at least one parent earning the minimum wage and one-third of all minimum wage workers have children. They earn $3.25 less than the $10 an hour 1968 standard, adjusted for inflation. And worker productivity has doubled since then.

In the end, for people like Roberts and Dorn, it is not about the statistics. It is about vague ideas like liberty and justice. Unfettered capitalism would correct what is wrong, they say, if only barriers like regulation and taxes would disappear.

“The minimum wage,” Dorn said, “interferes with individual freedom and economic freedom.”

The opposing Bernstein and Kornbluh, whom the audience voted winners of the debate, admonished Roberts and Dorn for confusing emotional language with fact.

This “laissez faire market ideology,” Bernstein said, not only “trumps common sense and empirical evidence” but objectifies labor—people—who are treated like commodities when economists remain locked up in the ivory tower and look at society through a narrow lens.

“Every economist should be required to do two years of social work before becoming an economist,” said Bernstein, who began his career as a social worker in New York City.


The President of Senegal Thinks Local for study of responsive law

The president of Senegal, Macky Sall, canceled all 29 foreign fishing permits as one of his first acts when he took office in April 2012. The nation’s communities and fisheries have bounced back over the last year with local fishermen seeing their catches increase.

Factory ships weighing 11,000 tons from Morocco, Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, China and Belize had been using satellite technology to reel in hundreds of tons of fish a day before the haul disappeared from Senegal and landed on dinner plates in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe.

AP/Tanya Bindra

AP/Tanya Bindra

Local fishermen had to compete on 30-foot boats that brought in a few tons of nearby fish a year. They were traveling farther and farther out to sea as fisheries dwindled—a problem exacerbated by illegal foreign fishing vessels. The country saw $100 million less in revenue a year because of outside fishing boats, according to Greenpeace, while the entire West African region continues to lose $1 billion a year.

Sall’s pledge to protect local economies from the international free market is an important and rare act of resistance to the doctrine of globalization. Since the crumbling of the Soviet Union, especially, developing countries have opened up their markets to rich Western nations that promise that unfettered capitalism will strengthen local economies. Often, the opposite happens.

GDP may go up, but it’s not because economies are healthier. Figures might climb because Western countries put a price tag on an economy that has traditionally been informal. Where fish, for example, had been caught and eaten locally, without figuring into the GDP, they are now amassed by foreign trawlers who pay for licenses, making Senegal a richer nation from a Western perspective, but a poorer one in real terms.

Senegal, which started to free up its fishing market 10 years ago, saw many of its fishing communities revolt in 2012 as large foreign trawlers began decimating the stock.

“Big fishing companies create an inequitable competition with local communities,” said Ahmed Diame from the Greenpeace office in Senegal’s capital city of Dakar. “Local communities don’t benefit from the presence of these vessels which fish, process and send out all their catches [themselves].”

Sall, who promised to rescind foreign licenses in his platform when he ran for office, followed through on April 30, 2012, as fishermen were ready to act on their own.

“You can be sure that I was approached by many [international] fishing companies,” Sall said at an event for the marine conservation group Blue Frontier Campaign in Washington, D.C., last week, “but I was also aware of the cries of fishermen who were running out of fish.

“Forget about the $12 million in profits,” he said about corporate guarantees. “Focus on what the people need.”

Sall said that poor countries should band together to fight globalization. He wants to see neighboring nations in Africa, especially those on the coast that have suffered the same losses as Senegal, protect their natural resources and worry more about their local economies than shallow GDP levels.

Some are following the direction Senegal has taken. Palau has refused to allow Taiwan to send fishing vessels into its waters. And groups such as Greenpeace are fighting on behalf of islands in the western Pacific Ocean to bar foreign trawlers from overfishing yellowfin tuna.

Sooner or later, Sall said, countries will have “to take a break from draining natural resources. ... Fishermen are not the experts in protecting the oceans.” The responsibility lies with those who can understand the process, he said, those often bought off by corporations.

“The most well-known dish in Senegal is rice with fish,” Sall noted. “I can’t take that away from the Senegalese.”


U.S. Breaks Promises to Iraqi and Afghan Refugees for study of responsive law

In April 2003, President George W. Bush outlined the progress of Operation Iraqi Freedom at the headquarters of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, an F-18 fighter jet production facility in St. Louis.

“We believe that people across the Middle East and across the world are weary of poverty, weary of oppression, and yearn to be free,” he said, pausing for applause. “And all who know that hope, all who will work and sacrifice for freedom, have a friend in the United States of America.”

But the U.S. 10 years later is loath to invite too many of our friends inside our borders. Of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees who have fled the country, only about 80,000, or 5 percent, have been resettled here in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Sweden accepted an average of about 10,000 Iraqi refugees a year from 2006 to 2009, bringing the number of asylum seekers to about 50,000 in a country with a population 30 times smaller than ours.

AP/Emilio Morenatti

AP/Emilio Morenatti

Most Iraqi refugees, along with those internally displaced in Iraq, have received little attention from the nation that sought to bring them freedom. In the last four years, the U.S. has spent $2.1 billion on refugees in the Middle East region, with that funding dispersed among Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

By contrast, the “too big to fail” banks enjoy an informal insurance policy from the government that costs $83 billion a year, according to a recent Bloomberg report.

The Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for Iraqi and Afghan civilians, created in 2008, were meant to expedite the process of resettlement for those who provided “faithful and valuable service” to U.S. efforts in the wars and who might face “ongoing serious threats” as a result of their actions.

Flawed criteria for admittance, coupled with technical difficulties many refugees face in the application process, have led to a dearth of visas. Of the possible 25,000 SIVs, only 5,500 have been issued. The program, which anticipated four times as many resettlements, expired at the end of fiscal year 2012, failing many applicants who have struggled to relocate themselves and their families.

Earlier this month, 19 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to extend the program. They cited problems of inefficiency, lack of transparency and discrepancies between the Afghan and Iraqi SIVs—22 percent of the available Iraqi SIVs have been approved, but only 12 percent of Afghan ones have been issued.

“Innumerable Afghans who served the U.S. Government wait in peril,” the letter noted, “their lives and family threatened.”

The letter, however, did not point out where much of the danger and damage in Iraq and Afghanistan have come from. It did not contain the number of refugees or internally displaced citizens, which has grown in the last 10 years, nor did it juxtapose the $1.7 trillion cost of the war in Iraq with the scant $2.1 billion in aid the U.S. has spread across more than a dozen countries.

The gap between Bush’s words and actions should be remembered as Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina call for intervention in Syria for the sake of liberty.


Reports of My WMD Are Greatly Exaggerated for study of responsive law

Ten years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the American war machine might be revving up for another strike, this time in Syria. The push has accelerated in the last few days after rebels and government forces accused each other of using chemical weapons in a rocket attack Tuesday outside of Aleppo, though reports now suggestsuch weapons were not fired.

Republicans, latching on to President Obama’s assertion that government use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer,” are trying to convince the public that the allegations about President Bashar Assad’s stockpiling of and willingness to use such weapons are true, despite the lack of evidence. GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, have all been pressing for the use of force in Syria for more than a year. Recently, they have used the prospect of chemical warfare in an effort to shape public opinion.

AP/Aleppo Media Center

AP/Aleppo Media Center

Last week Rogers wrote a piece in The Washington Post calling on the U.S. to deploy “small groups with specialized capabilities” into Syria. He bases the need to use force on unspecified “public reports [that] suggest that the regime may be preparing to use chemical weapons.”

But first, he asks the reader to think of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds 25 years ago.

“As we remember that horror and reflect on the lives ended by a tyrant, we must realize the world is on the brink of witnessing a similar atrocity in Syria,” he writes.


Rogers does not mention the more than 100,000 Iraqis and 4,475 U.S. personnel killed in Iraq after WMD fear mongering led to a war.

Despite the consequences of the pre-emptive war with Iraq, Republicans argue that there is no other option in Syria. “Absolutely, you’ve got to get on the ground,” Graham said in an interview with Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin. “There is no substitute for securing these weapons. I don’t care what it takes. We need partners in the region.”

Graham, who has been urging an intervention for the past 18 months, argues it is too risky to wait for a proper assessment of whether the Assad regime has chemical weapons.

“If the choice is to send in troops to secure the weapons sites versus allowing chemical weapons to get in the hands of some of the most violent people in the world, I vote to cut this off before it becomes a problem,” he said.

Many Israeli officials have joined the hype, claiming that there is hard evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons earlier this week. Cabinet Ministers Tzipi Livni and Yuval Steinetz assured President Obama on Wednesday during his visit to Israel that they had proof of the attack, though it has not been made public.

Russia, which is Syria’s most powerful ally, says that Western nations are engaged in “delaying tactics” that distract the global community from focusing on aid and negotiations in the region. Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, said the possibility that rebels fabricated the attack in an effort to mobilize Western forces is not out of the question. Current events, he said, are mirroring those leading up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. It was a war, Churkin has said, that “is not in line with the Geneva document.” The allegations toward Syria, he continued, are a stepping-stone for repeating the same violations.

Churkin criticized the U.S. for how it is handling and reporting the accusations.

“Instead of launching those propaganda balloons, it is better to get our focus right,” he said.


Good Intentions, Bad Information at CPAC for study of responsive law

Republicans gathered at one of the largest hotels in the world, the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Md., last weekend for the 40th Conservative Political Action Conference. Although there were thousands of attendees roaming the exhibit halls, languor from the defeat in November seemed to keep spirits low. It was, as many people told me, a “down year.”

Pedantic speeches about Benghazi, nostalgic Ronald Reagan films and corporately sponsored ballroom dinners lent a tawdry feel to the three-day event. Rubi(H2)O stickers on plastic water bottles were a failed attempt at self-deprecating humor. The lasting impression from Sarah Palin’s speech was the sip she took during it from a Super Big Gulp, a jab at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s large-size soda ban.

But underneath the sensationalism was anger from libertarians toward establishment Republicans. The libertarians, whom the Republican National Committee has largely shut out, assumed a more energetic role at CPAC this year, using the failed election as evidence that the GOP should return to their philosophy’s ideals. 

The libertarians, many of them young, are ambitious and sincere. They are not clean-shaven and preppy. They are not rich. Many accuse Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas and even Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan—whose budget, in the end, would increase government spending 3.5 percent each year—of having agendas that stray from fiscal conservatism. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s victory this year in the CPAC straw poll, which Mitt Romney won in 2012, suggests either that more tea party libertarians are stepping forward or that many traditional Republicans are disillusioned with a crumbling GOP establishment. In any case, the libertarians realize, as do progressives, that there is too much war, corruption and waste in Washington and the situation needs to improve.

But unlike many on the left, libertarian conservatives believe that big government is to blame, not corporate overreach.

“The problem with Obama is that Goldman Sachs was never prosecuted,” Bubba Atkinson, an editor at the Independent Journal Review, said in a group conversation at CPAC with three or four other young male Republicans with libertarian bents.

“It’s pretty easy [for Republicans to] say ‘hey, Jeffrey Immelt [CEO of GE] is buddies with Obama and GE didn’t pay federal taxes in the past few years,’ ” one of the men added. “That’s an easy sell.” But Republicans, he argued, do not address these problems.

These young CPAC-goers contended that government officials are puppeteers, exploiting corporate executives for more contributions, bribes and guaranteed lobbying positions after serving out their terms.

“The biggest problem is that government is in the seat of power,” Atkinson said. “They’re the ones who write the laws. They’re the ones who raise the taxes. The lobbying, the special interest groups, the corruption and the bribery—that’s not going to stop unless that power is gone. Who’s going to be spending millions of dollars to bribe a politician when he’s not in control of anything?”

Young libertarians have turned to Rand Paul, they said, because of his integrity and vigor. Paul states clearly that the problem is government intervention, they noted.

“He’s young,” a group member said in praise of the senator. “He speaks his mind.”

Paul exposes the waste in government spending, the man argued, and has the strength to filibuster a Senate confirmation hearing.

“The fact that he talked for 13 hours,” the CPAC attendee said, “it’s outstanding.”

But the group members, like many young people who came to the conference, were loath to think about the forces behind politics. Many libertarians at CPAC recognized that Washington is corrupt but they don’t ask why. Paul’s budget plan is simple, quick and effortless, the men asserted. It does not require a deep understanding of Wall Street or a digestion of the figures pertaining to climate change.

“I don’t really care where the money’s coming from,” one of the men said when I asked him about corporate contributions, “as long as you have access to knowledge. Money in politics buys debate time. It doesn’t bother me, as long as we recognize that and speak up ourselves.”

Paul’s desire to cut spending in all sectors, lower taxes and abolish agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration (he argues corporations can regulate air traffic themselves), is attractive to the younger generation of conservatives. It’s straightforward and does not deal with the nuances of economics.

When I asked the group members about regulation of corporate behavior in the derivatives market, for example, they were quick to change the subject. They are not experts, they said. They just have common sense. 

“My friends were gung-ho Obama supporters,” Atkinson recalled, “and then they get a 2 percent tax hike on their payroll. They see it on their checks and all of a sudden Obama’s this bad guy.”

As corporate money flows out of the Republican Party and into the Democratic one—Obama raised almost $100 million more than Romney did in the 2012 election and $220 million more than John McCain in 2008—fiscal conservatives are quick to say that big government, which the mainstream media says is a Democratic virtue, is crushing personal and corporate influence. Many progressives attribute the Democrats’ success to their ability to edge out Republicans in corporate fundraising, whereas libertarians say the success is a result of a large PR campaign waged by the party itself.

Some libertarians at CPAC, for example, said that Democrats had taken control of the mainstream news media.

“There’s Comedy Central, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Huffington Post, Politico on the left,” a man from the group said, “and then Fox News on the right.”

But behind the reporting are the media outlets’ major shareholders and advertisers, not the Democratic Party.

The true narrative—that laws are signed by politicians but shaped by corporations—is hidden and ignored by the libertarians. There is little talk of corporate benefits, subsidies and incentives. Taxpayer dollars, many say, are funding greedy government officials and agencies. The 2008 bailout becomes a federal ploy to take control of the banks, for example, not a taxpayer handout to financial industries that squandered away billions of dollars and then gave top executives large bonuses.

Libertarians, in the end, are fighting the good fight with faulty information. And there is plenty of corporate news to bolster that idea.

“Look,” Atkinson said about people like Rand Paul, “at least somebody is saying something.”


Ecosocialism: One Man’s Vision for a Green Economy for study of responsive law

At the recent Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, D.C., some 45,000 people brandished picket signs with logos modeled after the one President Obama used in his campaign. It was a display meant to reassure Obama that the environmental movement in the United States has not broken its allegiance to his presidency.

The Feb. 17 march was an expectant and hopeful plea, even a celebration, because many in attendance trust that Obama will do the right thing. The crowd’s confidence that day culminated in an ebullient dance party, with many smiling and flailing their bodies on cue when the song from the Internet’s viral Harlem Shake videos dropped.

The night before, a group of about 60 activists gathered in the basement of the All Souls Church in the D.C. neighborhood of Columbia Heights. They were there to address the bigger picture and the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. They were sullen and did not share the enthusiasm of the next day’s protesters.

Writer and activist Chris Williams, former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and Solidarity Saturday student activist Nick Davenport belied the general optimism in apanel discussion titled “Capitalism Is Killing the Planet: How Can We Fight Back?”

Behind them hung a banner that said “System Change, Not Climate Change,” a message that seemed directed more toward the demonstrators than those on the Hill or K Street, where lobbyists work.

“February 17 should mark the beginning of a more united, grass-roots climate movement with no illusions in the free market or the Democratic Party,” read a statement from the Ecosocialist Contingent, a coalition of groups fighting global warming that organized the panel.

The groups belong to the ecosocialist movement, which overlaps with Occupy and centers on ecology as the principal contradiction to capitalism. Whereas capitalism is designed for infinite growth, the planet is not, members contend. The movement, which shifted from local to global focus with the creation of the Ecosocialist International Network in 2007, asserts that labor abuse and the destruction of the planet’s ecosystem are inexorably linked.

“It’s a linear system,” panel participant Chris Williams, author of “Ecology and Socialism,” said about capitalism. “Inputs go in at one end—which would be natural resources, energy and human labor—and then out of the other end come commodities and waste ... the opposite of how nature and ecosystems work.”

Williams, an adjunct professor at Pace University, said that in its celebration of the individual, capitalism is shortsighted. When resources are depleted, humans cannot thrive, he noted, whereas the planet is indifferent to our existence. It doesn’t need us.

Ecosocialists hope to block the pipeline project and use that success as motivation for a continued assault on the pillars of capitalism.

A “victory on the Keystone pipeline—making sure that it doesn’t get built,” Williams explained, “is part of a bigger strategy of asking ourselves, ‘if we can stop that, what else can we stop?’  ”

Williams and other ecosocialists want to see capitalism crumble and replaced with acommons systems in which resources are owned communally. There would be rules and regulations that bar any person from controlling more resources than another.

Williams, who seems to think that institutions dictate human behavior, stands in opposition to figures like activist and founder Bill McKibben, who believe that a grass-roots movement will persuade Obama and the Democratic Party to act in the public’s interest and reject the pipeline.

“Once you accept the limitations imposed by the system and try to work within it,” Williams said, “then you immediately run into insurmountable problems.

“Obama is not an ally,” he argued. “He runs the American empire.”

If the pipeline “doesn’t get approved it will be because of us,” Williams proclaimed, “and not [because of] Obama coming to his senses.”


Access Skews Coverage of Syrian War for study of responsive law

Two weeks ago, rebels set off three car bombs in Damascus, Syria, killing more than 70 people, most civilians. The next day, government forces fired a Scud missile into the northwestern city of Aleppo, killing about a dozen people and burying others in rubble. 

The attacks are a reminder that the civil war in Syria is not a romantic democratic uprising, although one could get that impression from accounts in mainstream media outlets. That’s because American newspapers largely use photographs and quotations from the Free Syrian Army, the main opposition group.

AP/Andoni Lubaki

AP/Andoni Lubaki

Government forces have been more indiscriminate in the killing of civilians than have the rebels, but the opposition groups are not exempt from carrying out atrocities. Rebel bombings and attacks on government strongholds have killed many civilians, the latest seen in the explosions two weeks ago. When the Free Syrian Army denies responsibility for its attacks, many reporters are loath to address or challenge the refutations.

Reporting from inside Syria has proved difficult. Journalists seeking to travel there may receive one-week visas from the regime, but movement is limited. Others have been taken hostage by, it is believed, government forces, as in the cases of two independent reporters—Austin Tice and James Foley—who are still in captivity if not dead. The conflict in Syria is the most dangerous in the world to cover, with 28 journalists killed there in 2012. 

Journalists and photographers, who must use the rebels for protection, depend on the insurgents for updates on the fighting. Western media have remained skeptical of press releases from the government-owned Syrian Arab News Agency. Although statements from SANA or from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad himself are often published or broadcast, they are met with tremendous criticism and doubt. The voice of the Free Syrian Army triumphs over that of the Assad regime in Western media.


In the last two months, for example, The Washington Post and The New York Times have collectively published 37 photographs of rebel fighters, showing injured and dead soldiers. Only two photographs depicted government forces.

If “you’re not allowed to go to the place where you can tell the truth,” says Mary Anne Golon, director of photography at The Washington Post, “you’re not hiding anything. You just don’t have the truth to tell.”

The Post does its best to balance coverage by writing about the side that is not photographed as often, she explains. 

But coverage of the bombings two weeks ago suggests that this is not always the case. The Post and the Times relied, as they have for a long time, on rebel fighters almost exclusively for information and quotations about the incidents. 

There was no follow-up, for example, when an insurgent told a reporter from the Post that “the regime kills civilians” and that “the Free Syrian Army does not.”

Golon notes reluctantly that “in a conflict zone, there’s always going to be propaganda.”

But many journalists disagree with Golon, arguing that the mainstream media bear much of the responsibility for reducing the conflict in Syria to a battle between good and evil—rebels versus the Assad regime. 

There has been “poor coverage of the Middle East by white journalists who don’t speak Arabic and who do not obtain an expertise in the region,” says a reporter who, because he is in and out of Syria so often, asked to remain anonymous. “In Syria more than elsewhere I have seen this.

“On the other hand there is a flood of ‘information’ coming out of Syria,” he continues. “Knowledge is being produced but it explains nothing and only obfuscates. This is because journalists reporting from Syria rely on local activists who have an agenda. That is not accurate reporting, but the overthrow of the regime with international assistance.”

Even in Washington, the reporter says, journalists are turning to pundits who automatically uphold American foreign policy and have spent little time covering the Middle East from the ground.

“When it’s time to quote experts,” he says, “American journalists inevitably turn to the same few white people at the Zionist and neocon Washington Institute for Near East Policy or a few anti-Syrian regime Lebanese politicians.”

As a result, Western media have not captured the resilience of the Assad regime. Many predicted a swift defeat of the Syrian government in April 2011 when the rebels began their onslaught. 

Civilian support for the regime is also ignored, the reporter says. As much as half of the Syrian population is either loyal to Assad or at least wary of the opposition, a situation that is underreported.

“Action hero reporters have gone in to get shot at,” the reporter says, “and [to] talk about the brave and desperate villagers dodging the mortars of the regime.” But it is “the same story that has been done over and over, which does not educate the readers.”

Many news outlets, he adds, find it easier and less controversial to bolster their countries’ foreign policy and thus empathize with the opposition. 

It is “a new development for journalists who could never write objectively about insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine,” he observes. “Their suspicious and sudden selective sympathy for Arab victims has come with a lack of critical understanding of the complexities of the Syrian civil war.

“As a result,” he says, “all we see is villagers fighting an invisible enemy.”


With Minimum Wage Bill, Congress Is Just Trying to Keep Up With Inflation

AP/Mike Groll

AP/Mike Groll for study of responsive law

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to announce that they had introduced a bill in Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 over three years. The legislation would ensure that the minimum wage is indexed so that it would keep up with inflation rates every year.

“Every time we’ve raised the minimum wage,” Harkin said, “the economy gets stronger—every single time.”

The bill “would give a raise to 30 million American workers,” he said. “More than half of these are women and nine out of 10 are adult workers, not teenagers.”

About 120 million Americans make less today than the minimum wage standard in 1968, when workers were making $10.50 an hour adjusting for inflation.

Since 2002, the poverty rate among U.S. children, almost all of who have at least one parent making the minimum wage, has risen from 16 to almost 22 percent.

The current minimum wage “is immoral and it is economically dangerous,” Miller said at the news conference Tuesday. “We know that businesses can afford to raise the minimum wage. The New York Times just yesterday called it the golden age of corporate profits, even while workers’ wages remain stuck in quicksand.”

Harkin noted that “with an increase in minimum, wage workers have more to spend locally and not overseas. This is just basic economics. Increased demand means increased economic activity ... [and] a boost to Main Street.”

Harkin and Miller said they would like to see the minimum wage hiked even higher than what they have proposed.

“We have to be realistic though,” Harkin said. “We want it to pass through Congress.”

Opponents of the legislation argue that boosting the minimum wage would push companies to lay off more of their workers. It is the nature, they say, of running a business in a competitive market.

But average CEO pay, Miller pointed out, is 900 percent higher than it was in 1985 and is 360 times the salary of the average—not the lowest paid—worker.

Middle-class income has dropped almost 10 percent over the last 23 years as a result, the congressman said.

Amy Crawford, who traveled from Illinois to Washington, D.C., to speak at the news conference, illustrates today’s minimum wage job holder. For more than 30 years, she worked as a designer and considered herself a member of the middle class. But since moving to Chicago 14 months ago, she has not been able to find commensurate work and now her temporary job at a fast food restaurant is looking more and more permanent.

“I used to think minimum wage jobs were for other people, people who worked where I stopped to get doughnuts or burgers,” the 56-year-old Crawford said. “They weren’t me. They had less education and fewer skills. They didn’t work as hard as I had or try as hard.

“I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she acknowledged. “The truth is that in today’s economy anyone can wind up in a minimum wage job.”