Truthout Stories Thu, 02 Oct 2014 06:48:31 -0400 en-gb On the News With Thom Hartmann: The Sonora River Poisoned by the Mining Industry, and More

In today's On the News segment: The mining industry pollutes the Sonora River and drinking water in Northern Mexico; a federal judge has restored protection for wolves in Wyoming; Archbishop Desmond Tutu has added his voice to world leaders calling for action on climate change; and more.


You need to know this. We all know the saying, "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." But, when it comes to drilling and mining, big business thinks that they can fool us over and over again. Last week, authorities in northern Mexico had to tell 25,000 residents not to use water from the Sonora River, as it had been stained orange by a toxic spill from a copper mine. Just like the coal ash spill by Duke Energy in North Carolina, the waste water spill by TransCanda in Alberta, and the various others in between, corporations have proven that they can't be trusted to protect us, or our planet. The recent spill in Mexico occurred less than a month after 10 million gallons of heavy metals and acids contaminated two rivers and a dam. The back-to-back spills have left farmers in the area struggling to keep crops alive, and left tens of thousands of people without access to a clean water supply. And, just like spills in the US and Canada, the mining firm Grupo Mexico is being accused of lying about containment and clean-up measures, and of failing to properly supervise the massive mine. Carlos Arias, the director of Sonora's civil protection agency, says that the mine has "blocked access to investigators," but warned that authorities will return "backed up by security forces." This is what happens when corporations are allowed to amass too much power. Companies that ignore regulations should not be granted the privilege of doing business in a nation. These mining and drilling companies have shown that they will always put profit over people, and it's time that the people fight back. They've fooled us way more than once, and in the words of George Bush, we can't get fooled again.

A federal judge has restored protection for wolves in Wyoming. Last week, Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the state's plan to maintain wolf population did not include adequate safeguards. The gray wolves were previously protected under the Endangered Species Act, but that protection was partially lifted as their numbers began to rise. A special season allowed trophy hunters to kill the wolves, and they were labeled as predators that could be shot if they endangered livestock in other areas of the state. Judge Berman said that Wyoming's population management plan was "arbitrary and capricious," and she placed the wolves back under full protection until the state has an adequate plan to protect the species. Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club's Wild America Campaign said, "We think the court is right to require them to develop a plan that's more science-based, and [that] doesn't treat wolves as vermin in the majority of the state." Although many of us would love to see a ruling that offers even more protection for this native species, the fact that wolves are once again protected in Wyoming is good news.

Many of the world's greatest leaders have already called for action on climate change. Now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has added his voice, and said that it's time to "move beyond the fossil fuel era." The Nobel Prize-winner released a special video last week, calling on world leaders to come up with real solutions at the UN Climate Summit. The Archbishop said that individuals and nations must redirect investment from oil and gas into renewable energy, and hold the fossil fuel industry legally liable for damaging our environment. He said that "time is running out," and that the Climate Summit is "a decisive moment in the struggle to maintain God's Earth." Mr. Tutu echoed the spirit of the massive People's Climate March, and explained that protecting the environment is the human rights challenge of our time. He said, "We can no longer tinker about the edges. We can no longer continue treating our addiction to fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow." Hopefully, Desmond Tutu's powerful message helps convince world leaders that now is the time to act.

Monsanto may control many of our lawmakers here in the U.S., but it looks like they don't have much sway with the Dutch Parliament. Last week, lawmakers in the Netherlands passed a ban on Monsanto's RoundUp herbicide, and said that the glyphosate-laced chemical must be kept away from the public. Various studies have shown that the herbicide is linked to cancer, kidney disease, birth defects, and other health issues, and the Netherlands doesn't need more proof to know that the chemical is toxic. As of 2015, the sale of RoundUp will be prohibited for agricultural or private use, and farmers and gardeners will have to use safer products to keep weeds away. The Netherlands joins Mexico, Tasmania, and Russia in saying "no" to Monsanto, but here in the U.S., our regulators and lawmakers continue bowing down to the chemical giant. Millions of people around the world have called for an end to GMOs and toxic pesticides, and it's time for those in power in all nations to start listening.

And finally... From the time we learn to speak as children, most of us understand the concept of "fairness." Well, science says that evolution may be the reason that even little kids often use the phrase "that's not fair." According to new research published in the journals Science and Nature, humans may have developed a sense of fairness to help us survive. Scientists conducted an experiment by having two Capuchin monkeys perform the same task. When they gave one of the monkeys a superior reward, the other would become extremely agitated. Researchers found that some primates, like humans, will give up some of their own reward in order to equalize the benefits, and maintain long-term cooperative relationships. In other words, even apes understand that short-term selfishness doesn't benefit them in the long-term. Scientists hypothesized that the ability to think about the future and the self-control to turn down a reward helped humans form early societies, which helped us survive as a species. It looks like science may have explained why we feel strongly about injustice in our current economy. However, it appears we may have to wait for more research to explain why most billionaires can be so selfish.

And that's the way it is for the week of September 29, 2014 - I'm Thom Hartmann, on Science & Green News.

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 13:36:36 -0400
Underestimating ISIS: An Indictment of Decades of Failed US Policy in the Middle East

Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary where he teaches courses on US national security. He also instructs a senior seminar in the Honors Department at the George Washington University entitled "National Security Decision Making."


SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Welcome to this edition of the Larry Wilkerson report. Larry is joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary.

Thanks so much for joining us, Larry.


PERIES: Larry, President Obama, in an interview on 60 Minutes with Steven Kroft, acknowledged that the U.S. underestimated the IS and overestimated the ability of the Iraq military to fend off the militant group IS. Stephen Kroft actually challenged President Obama on that. Let's have a look.
STEVEN KROFT, CORRESPONDENT, 60 MINUTES: How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise you?

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Well, I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

KROFT: You mention James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. I mean, he didn't just say that we underestimated ISIL. He said we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.

OBAMA: That's true. That's absolutely true.
PERIES: So, Larry, could that be so, that the greatest military in the world cannot properly do estimates of their threat?

WILKERSON: I think it's another indication that the $100 billion plus that we spend on 17 different separate intelligence agencies in the United States is money not well spent. I don't think we've done a real good job at strategic level intelligence in a long time, and even operational level intelligence has suffered majorly.

The idea that we didn't know that the Iraqi military was inadequate, inadequate to almost any task other than eating, sleeping, and drinking, is probably as much a product of General David Petraeus and others in Iraq, who spent billions of dollars over the course of a decade-plus training this Iraqi military and ensuring all of us that it was going to be competent and able at a minimum to defend the borders of its own state.

The argument my party, the Republican Party, is advancing, that three years have elapsed since we left, and that in that three years they fell apart, is ludicrous. They never were very good, and they probably never will be very good, and they aren't very good now. And to say that we overestimated the Iraqi army's ability is to say that we fooled ourselves for a decade-plus and spent a lot of taxpayer money, and actually spent a lot of blood, too, in trying to ensure that, and we certainly did not.

PERIES: Is there any evidence that they actually knew the strength of the ISIS, that this is actually a way of easing us back into a war?

WILKERSON: Oh, I don't think they knew anything about the Islamic State, ISIL, ISIS, whatever we're calling it today, the term of art that they're using, the intelligence community is using. I think it's a fair assessment to say the intelligence community didn't realize that the Islamic State forces in Syria, hardened by two, three years of civil war, couldn't come out, cross the border into Iraq, and with a great deal of Saudi money and a great deal of Sunni help, the very Sunnis that David Petraeus awakened in Iraq to turn against al-Qaeda and defeat it in Iraq and to help him stabilize Iraq, that those forces, once joining the Islamic State forces, wouldn't present a fairly formidable force. I mean, that's a complex assessment for the U.S. intelligence community to make, and I really don't think they're capable of those kinds of assessments today.

PERIES: And then the point you were making about the Republican Party--let's have a look at what Boehner had to say just recently.
JOHN BOEHNER, SPEAKER FOR THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: At some point, somebody's boots have to be on the ground. That's the whole point.


BOEHNER: Listen, the president doesn't want to do that. If I were the president, I probably wouldn't have talked about what I wouldn't do. And maybe we can get enough of these forces trained to get them on the battlefield. But somebody's boots have to be there.

INTERVIEWER: And if no one else will step up, then you would recommend putting American boots on the ground?

BOEHNER: We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don't destroy them first, we're going to pay the price.
PERIES: So, Larry, this is Boehner, who on Good Morning America just recently stated that they are prepared to support boots on the ground. This is consistent with Republican Party policy. What do you think of that?

WILKERSON: I think it's nonsense. I think John Boehner ought to get his M16 and get his little butt right on over there to Syria, and maybe if he's got any family, he ought to send them to, 'cause what he's talking about is sending the all-recruited military force back into the maelstrom of Iraq and Syria.

I think there are two possibilities, both of them very dangerous, with regard to that. You send major American ground forces back over there and you are, one, apt to solidify all those forces who write now are disparate and separated and organized into a unified Arab whole, no sectarian split at all, against those forces until they've rid the region of those forces. The second dangerous development is that we will in fact make it into a Shia-Sunni sectarian war. And it will be bloody indeed, and we'll be right in the middle of it. So I don't see any positive to sending American forces back over there, unless, of course, unless, of course, Mr. Boehner and all the rest of the people in my party, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are warmongers par-excellence, want to get their butts over there, too, their families' butts over there, and bring back conscription in the United States, and draft half a million to a million young men and women, and send them over there in a serious effort to stabilize the region, and of course stay there for the next hundred years in order to maintain and sustain that stability. So Mr. Boehner speaks of that which he knows not, just like Lindsey Graham and John McCain and all the other warmongers in my political party.

PERIES: Larry, President Obama also stated that Shia-Sunni conflict is the greatest issue in the Middle East right now. Let's have a look at what he had to say.
OBAMA: But what we also have to do is we have to come up with political solutions in Iraq and in Syria in particular, but in the Middle East generally, that arrives at an accommodation between Sunni and Shia populations that right now are the biggest cause of conflict not just in the Middle East but in the world.
PERIES: What do you think that statement?

WILKERSON: Well, I think you're correct. I think this didn't exist, not in any real fashion, before we invaded Iraq and sort of cemented the two sides and caused it to start. I think that was a disaster, invading Iraq in 2003, and we're seeing the results of that disaster right now.

But I don't think--that said, I don't think that adding more American troops to it is the answer to the problem. The answer to the problem is a political answer, but it's a political answer that's very complex and would take a long time to work its way out. It involves Ankara, it involves the Turks, of course, it involves Tehran and the Iranians, it involves Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, it involves Lebanon, it involves all the region--and I don't preclude Israel from being in there too--and taking on all the problems that are causing this Islamic State force to be supported by increasing numbers of Muslims, continue to be able to recruit, and recruit even better than before, and continuing to be able to prosecute its agenda in the region. You don't stop that with bombs. You don't stop that with aircraft. You don't stop that with troops on the ground, for that matter, unless you're willing, as I said, to mobilize the nation and really go to war. The way you stop that is with political solutions to problems that are causing these people to do what they're doing, and more importantly, causing Muslims all around the world to support them.

Until you've done that--and George W. Bush said it back in my day in the George W. Bush administration; Colin Powell said it; others of note said it--you've got to drain the swamp that supports them. You've got to take away the reasons that the majority of these people flock to guns and want to kill people. That's what you've got to do. It's not that they're all paranoids and they're all misogynist or masochist or some kind of form of life we haven't seen before; it's reasons that they're out there on the battlefield. There are reasons that they're carrying weapons and reasons that they're killing people.

And those reasons, by and large, are reasons that can be dealt with if you're smart enough and you do complexity well enough to deal with it. It takes a lot of leaders. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of effort. It's going to take some money, for example, to take care of the millions of refugees that we've now created. I'm told the refugee situation is the worst since World War II. We've got Jordan being destabilized, Lebanon being destabilized. We've got Iraq and the north with a lot of the refugees. I'm even told that some of the Syrian refugees have hit the western coast of Australia. So this is a tremendous humanitarian problem, and I for one don't see us taking care of that very rapidly, or with much money either.

Still, there are a lot of components to this problem, and I don't see any of them being settled by dropping bombs on people.

PERIES: Let's pick up on that political solution. To be fair to President Obama, he actually mentioned the political solution as well. But that would mean that he has to engage Syria and Iran in the discussion. Is that likely to happen? And if they do enter more discussions about a political solution, who might actually head that kind of negotiation up in the current government?

WILKERSON: Well, I think Turkey is absolutely essential to a solution. Turkey's got to stop doing some of the things that it is doing, playing both sides against the middle, and start doing things that would bring a long-term solution.

But I think you're right. I think Tehran, I think Riyadh, and I think Baghdad, and I think other capitals, Damascus, are integral to this. And I think that we probably should re-examine what we're looking at with regard to Bashar al-Assad. I mean, I know Susan Rice and Samantha Power probably told President Obama that, hey, Hosni Mubarak went; Assad's going to go, too. But they didn't do their homework. Syria is not Egypt, and Egypt is not Syria, and Hosni Mubarak is not Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad's not about to go. Bashar al-Assad has major support inside Syria. And I don't care what kind of tyrant he is; he's holding on and he's going to hold on. Unless we're prepared to do what I said, mount a major invasion of the Middle East, we're not going to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. No matter how much Ankara wants to, no matter how much Tehran wants him to stay, we are not going to be the determinant, nor are they. The Syrians and Bashar al-Assad are going to be, and that means he's going to stay. So why are we opposing him in the way we're opposing him?

I like to think that in secret we're talking to Bashar al-Assad, or at least his people, and I like to think that in secret we're talking to Tehran about common interests and settling those common interests or meeting those common interests. I hope that's going on. I don't know if it can go on publicly, because we have such a fractured political situation in this country now, with my party leading the way to the fractured ditch, that we can't seem to do anything unified, anything together. But we should be talking to the Syrian government, and we should be talking to the Iranian government, and we should be using those talks to bring some solution to this very complex but difficult and disturbing situation.

PERIES: Larry, when President Obama made his ISIS speech two weeks ago, he never mentioned the Khorasan Group, which is supposed to be a strengthened al-Qaeda group. Some media is now reporting that this group is perhaps bigger than the ISIS group. Yet the group Intercept formed by First Look has challenged this theory, saying that this is another way to escort us into more war. What do you know about the Khorasan Group and their potential threat?

WILKERSON: I assume you mean a bigger threat to the United States. I don't see how they could possibly be a bigger threat to Bashar al-Assad or to Syria or to Iraq or anybody like that. It's a small group spun off from, I'm told, Ayman al-Zawahiri's al-Qaeda, and its purpose was to take advantage of the situation in Syria, much the way they tried to take advantage of the situation in Somalia, and form a group that could find some sanctuary, if you will, in order to train and plan for attacks on the United States. In that sense, if that is true--and I have no reason or hard intelligence in front of me to say it's true--if it is true, though, that's probably a more dangerous threat to the United States--not the region or to Syria or Bashar al-Assad, but to the United States--because they could do something similar to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11. Hopefully, we've learned enough from that and we're alert enough to where we could thwart it or stop it. I'm not reassured by that prospect, however. So if all those imponderables are fact or this group really is doing what I'm told it's doing, then yes, they're probably a bigger threat to the United States in terms of doing something directly that would impact adversely our interests.

PERIES: And yet they're supposed to be only a group that is about 100 people strong. Do you think they're capable of carrying out something in the United States?

WILKERSON: Well, we'd have to assume that they had access to the same kind of assets, planning, operational assets, capabilities, and so forth that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was then the number-two man in al-Qaeda, had prior to 9/11. That doesn't take a whole lot. I mean, if they're planning on something like 9/11, that doesn't take a whole lot. But I have not seen anything hard about this group, and I'm a little reluctant to start pronouncing on them, because I haven't heard anyone in the administration doing anything but using them to justify the military action we're presently taking it Syria. So I don't know if they're a real hard threat or not. I simply don't know.

PERIES: Alright, Larry, that's a good point to end on. Thank you so much for joining us.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 12:32:51 -0400
Umbrella Revolution: Hong Kong's Biggest Protests in Decades Challenge China on Political Freedom

Hong Kong is facing its biggest political unrest in decades as tens of thousands of protesters defy a police crackdown to demand greater freedom from China. The new round of protests began last week when thousands of college students launched a boycott to oppose China's rejection of free elections in 2017. The protesters want an open vote, but China's plan would only allow candidates approved by Beijing. After a three-day sit-in, police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. But that only fueled a public outcry which brought even more into the streets, with estimates reaching up to 200,000 people. Protest leaders have vowed to remain until the resignation of Hong Kong city leader, Leung Chun-ying, and a free vote for his successor. Originally organized by the group "Occupy Central," the protests have been dubbed Umbrella Revolution, for the umbrellas protesters have used to hide from the tear gas. The police crackdown is the harshest since China retook control of Hong Kong in 1997 after 150 years of British rule. The crackdown is being felt in mainland China, where the government has blocked the mobile photo-sharing app Instagram and heavily censored references to Hong Kong on social media. We are joined from Hong Kong by journalist Tom Gundy, who has been covering the protests.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

From Pacifica, this is Democracy Now!

I was there when they started the first tear gas. We were harmless people. You see here we're using umbrellas to come and protect themselves.

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Hong Kong, which faces its biggest political unrest in decades. Tens of thousands of protesters are in the streets defying a police crackdown on their pro-democracy movement. This new round of protests began last week, when thousands of college students launched a boycott to oppose China's rejection of free elections in 2017. The protesters want an open vote, but China's plan would only allow candidates approved by Beijing. After a three-day sit-in, police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. But that only fueled a public outcry which brought even more into the streets, with estimates reaching up to 200,000 people. The mood turned festive on Monday, with the scene of a massive street party taking over key parts of the Central business district. The government claims it's pulled back riot police and has urged protesters to leave. But on Monday, Hong Kong's second top local official, Carrie Lam, rejected heeding the protesters' demands.

CARRIE LAM: I have to stress that it remains our most important objective to achieve universal suffrage in the selection of the chief executive in 2017, and we will work according to that objective. It would not be entirely realistic to expect us to reverse the whole decision of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: Protest leaders have vowed to remain until the resignation of Hong Kong city leader, Leung Chun-ying, and a free vote for his successor. Originally organized by the group "Occupy Central," the protests have been dubbed Umbrella Revolution, for the umbrellas protesters have used to protect themselves from the tear gas. The police crackdown is the harshest since China retook control of Hong Kong in 1997 after 150 years of British rule. Since then, Hong Kong has operated under different economic and political systems than mainland China as part of a policy known as "one country, two systems." The crackdown is being felt in mainland China, where the government has blocked the mobile photo-sharing app Instagram and heavily censored references to Hong Kong on social media.

For more, we go to Hong Kong, where we're joined by Tom Grundy. A journalist and blogger, he was tear-gassed over the weekend while covering the protests.

Tom, why don't you lay out the scene for us? Describe what happened, how people gathered this weekend, and what has happened since.

TOM GRUNDY: Well, on Sunday morning, it seemed that the movement had lost some momentum. Students were gathered around a closed-off area around government headquarters, but as the day progressed, people were watching scenes at home of them being pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed, and I think that motivated others to come onto the streets. And there were repeated clouds of tear gas filling the area down at Admiralty, the government building area. By the next day, it seemed that the police presence had almost disappeared, and then you began to see waves of protesters coming into three different areas of the city—Admiralty, the government area; Causeway Bay; and another shopping thoroughfare in Kowloon.

And in the absence of any police now, there's somewhat of a more jovial and festive atmosphere. Things are very peaceful. There was even a DJ in Kowloon last night and barbecues. Some buses have been caught up in these occupation zones, which have been barricaded by some of the protesters. The drivers have had to obviously abandon them. And they've been decorated with placards by some of the protesters. At the moment, there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of demonstrators gathered in these three key areas. Instead of goggles and face masks, now they're generally donning black T-shirts, a mournful black, with yellow ribbons for universal suffrage.

AARON MATÉ: And, Tom, can you explain what set off these protests? There are supposed to be elections in 2017. China then recently changed the rules to say that it must approve the candidates. And do these protests have the support of the broader public, or is that still in flux?

TOM GRUNDY: Well, the joint agreement, the handover agreements between Britain and China, were put down about 30 years ago this month. And since then, there's been a debate about universal suffrage, which China promised would be implemented in Hong Kong under "one country, two systems." But it seems that Beijing has constantly redefined or moved the goal posts, as Martin Lee, one of the democracy icons here in Hong Kong, said. So, I think there is a lot of frustration, and the Occupy movement here, Occupy Central, Central being the Central business district, has been discussed for more than a year and a half. It seemed to be all but fizzling out this time last week, and there have been multiple pro-democracy protests over the years, but it seems that things began to come to a head with the student strikes over last week, people witnessing how they were treated. And now, that Occupy Central plan was brought forward to Sunday. It was originally going to be quite a modest sit-in in the Central business district starting tomorrow. So that began on Sunday.

The students and the Occupy movement seemed to merge under this umbrella movement, Umbrella Revolution. And as we go into two public holidays now—it leaves just Friday before the weekend—it seems that the momentum will just continue. Every night, more and more protesters have come onto the streets. Hong Kongers are late to rise, late to bed, so the rhythm seems to be very similar every day, in that as people finish work and school, they pour out onto the streets. And it still seems that it's being led by young people, but I imagine with it being National Day tomorrow, a public holiday, and another one Thursday, you'll begin to see even more Hong Kongers expressing dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Grundy, can you give us a little history lesson, for those who are not so focused on Hong Kong and its relationship to China, the "one country, two systems" philosophy? Go back to Britain and what happened with the transfer, and then what exactly those people in Hong Kong who are protesting are calling for today.

TOM GRUNDY: Yes, in 1984, it was negotiated between Britain and China that the territory would be handed over to Beijing, and it would be a special administrative region. So, the way of life, they said, of Hong Kongers would be maintained. It has its own monetary, immigration policies. There is no censorship. It is quite separate to the mainland in many ways.

Since 1997, when the handover happened, people have felt that there has been a slow erosion of civil liberties. And although approval of Beijing was perhaps at an all-time high in 2008 during the Olympics, it has slowly declined to an all-time low now, and particularly under the current leadership here in Hong Kong of CY Leung. It has come to a climax, I suppose, with these annual democracy protests, where people are asking Beijing to fulfill its promise within the "one country, two systems" agreement of "one person, one vote." At the end of August, the National People's Congress in Beijing said that, in fact, the selection—an election committee of just over a thousand people would be selecting two or three candidates from which everyone could choose from. And Occupy Central said that as a protest of last resort, they would stage the sit-in you're now seeing now all over the city.

I think some people find Occupy Central quite controversial in its obviously illegal civil disobedience methods. They don't have permission. You have to usually get prior permission to protest in Hong Kong. But certainly, many are sympathetic to the students and how they were treated by the police. And when surveys are done in Hong Kong, most people basically believe in having, you know, some degree of democracy here, as was promised in its 50 years of a autonomy agreement with Beijing. It's unclear, when that expires in 2047, whether Hong Kong will look more like the mainland or the mainland will look more like Hong Kong, but there is a freedom of protest in Hong Kong, and they're certainly expressing it now.

AARON MATÉ: Tom, Hong Kong has a poverty rate of 20 percent, but also a surging number of millionaires and billionaires. How does inequality fit into these protests?

TOM GRUNDY: Yeah, Hong Kong has actually the widest rich-poor gap in the developed world. The Economist had it tops on their crony capitalism index. Corporations actually get votes here. It's the freest economy in the world, the capital of capitalism, if you will. But that poverty gap is visible on the streets every day. You have the highest concentration of millionaires and Mercedes Benz, you know, in Asia, but at the same time you have elderly people picking up boxes in the streets to recycle and people living in cage homes or subdivided flats, which are tiny boxes which they pay quite a premium for, actually.

There has been some criticism that the Occupy and pro-democracy movement over the years have failed to identify with these social issues and link them to democracy. Some people feel, perhaps, that the Occupy movement is a little high-headed with its constitutional reform kind of language. But I think it is true that if people are properly represented, then they may get, you know, obviously more of a say in some of the lack of social welfare, for instance, in Hong Kong and that ever-increasing poverty gap.

AMY GOODMAN: Fearing we'll lose the satellite, let me just ask you about the crackdown on social media and the overall police response.

TOM GRUNDY: Yeah, police came under quite a lot of criticism for how they acted with pepper spray at close range, with tear gas on Sunday. The police themselves have been asked by the commissioner to remain unified. They've disappeared seemingly completely from the streets today and yesterday. They were in full riot gear on Sunday. But, you know, Hong Kong is a city of protests. There are over a thousand a year. It is how people express themselves politically, because they don't have a voice at the ballot box. So it was very unusual. The police are renowned for being very professional in Hong Kong, and we haven't seen clouds of tear gas like this on the streets since some unrest during the 2005 WTO protests. So, you know, I think it really shocked Hong Kongers. Everyone was changing, I suppose, their images on social media to yellow ribbons, showing solidarity with the protesters. And as you see now, there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands sitting down in the streets in these three key areas all over Hong Kong. And more seemed to be arriving just as I was leaving the area.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it a rejection of Chinese rule, Tom, or a modification of how China is ruling Hong Kong, that they're calling for?

TOM GRUNDY: I'm sorry, could you repeat the question?

AMY GOODMAN: Is it a rejection of Chinese rule or a modification of how China is ruling Hong Kong that the protesters are calling for?

TOM GRUNDY: Some people feel that what has happened is somewhat of a modification in itself. People are not anti-China. People are Chinese. It is part of China. But what the protesters are calling for is for Hong Kong's leader, CY Leung, to step down. He's deeply unpopular. Approval ratings are at an all-time low now. And they want the constitutional reform package to be revised, so that people have more of a say in who they get to vote for. At the moment, for instance, the functional constituencies system, which is quite complicated, gives corporations thousands of votes which would normally go to people. For instance, the metro system, the MTR, gets tens of thousands of votes, and it's actually partly owned by the government, so you have an absurd system whereby the government is voting for itself. And the chamber, the Legislative Council here, is dominated by pro-Beijing figures. I think China fears that if more pro-democracy politicians are allowed into the Legislative Council, they will somehow declare independence or something like that, but I think that's unfounded. China is also concerned about its own situations in places like Tibet and Xinjiang and, you know, how these protests might spread.

They are very much in the greatest tradition of civil disobedience. The organizers have been citing Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King. And it really is a textbook example in how people are helping each other. There are boxes and boxes of supplies. People could probably hang around for days. People are giving out free meals, sharing food, actually putting signs onto closed businesses and abandoned cars, which are caught between barricades, apologizing for the inconvenience. They are possibly the politest protesters in the world, and I am not sure where else you would see such scenes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think these protests could possibly spread, for example, to Beijing?

TOM GRUNDY: It's hard to tell. People often utter Tiananmen Square 1989 in the same breath as what is happening here. I don't think there will be similar scenes in Hong Kong, but perhaps China is concerned about similar scenes emerging in the mainland. And that's why you've have seen the greatest yet social media censorship efforts by Beijing and its complete blackout. But I was told today that young people in the mainland, they're certainly aware of what's going on.

As to what will happen next, there are a couple of public holidays. I imagine this will just continue until the government makes more of a concession or CY Leung steps down. I think it's not beyond feasibility, in that in 2003 you had almost a million people on the streets here, and they managed to oust the first leader of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa. So, we could see a repeat of that. These protests are certainly broader. So, we'll see what happens tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Grundy, we want to thank you for being with us, Hong Kong-based journalist. He was tear-gassed, like so many other protesters were, over the weekend while covering these protests in Hong Kong. He tweets at @TomGrundy.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we'll look at the new vice president of Afghanistan. Stay with us.

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 12:00:07 -0400
As US-Afghanistan Sign Troop Deal, CIA-Backed Warlord Behind Massacre of 2,000 POWs Sworn-In as VP

Afghanistan has inaugurated its first new president in a decade, swearing in Ashraf Ghani to head a power-sharing government. Joining him on stage Monday was Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan's new vice president. Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, once described by Ghani himself as a "known killer." Dostum's rise to the vice presidency comes despite his involvement in a 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war. The victims were allegedly shot to death or suffocated in sealed metal truck containers after they surrendered to Dostum and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. The dead prisoners — some of whom had been tortured — were then buried in the northern Afghan desert. Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll, has been widely accused of orchestrating the massacre and tampering with evidence of the mass killing. For more than a decade, human rights groups have called on the United States to conduct a full investigation into the massacre including the role of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives. We speak to Jamie Doran, director of the 2002 documentary "Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death," and Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy at Physicians for Human Rights, the group that discovered the site of the mass graves of the Taliban POWs.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Afghanistan, which has inaugurated its first new president in a decade, swearing in Ashraf Ghani to head a power-sharing government. During his inaugural speech on Monday, the former World Bank executive called on militants to join peace talks.

PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: [translated] We are tired of this war. Our message is a message of peace, and the message of peace doesn't mean we are weak. I call on Afghan government enemies, particularly the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami, to prepare for political negotiations.

AARON MATÉ: Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, speaking Monday. Joining him on stage was Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan's new vice president. Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, once described by Ghani himself as a, quote, "known killer." Dostum's rise to the vice presidency comes despite his involvement in a 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban POWs. The prisoners were allegedly shot to death or suffocated in sealed metal truck containers after they surrendered to Dostum and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. The dead prisoners, some of whom had been tortured, were then buried in the northern Afghanistan desert. Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll, has been widely accused of orchestrating the massacre and tampering with evidence of the mass killing.

AMY GOODMAN: For over a decade, human rights groups have called on the United States to conduct a full investigation into the massacre, including the role of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives. The Bush administration blocked three investigations into the alleged war crimes, and the Obama administration quietly closed its own inquiry last year without releasing its findings. After the massacre, Abdul Rashid Dostum left Afghanistan but returned in 2009 to help Hamid Karzai win re-election. Since then, he has served in a largely ceremonial role as commander-in-chief of the Afghan National Army.

We're joined now by two guests who have closely followed the story of the 2001 massacre as well as the rise of Dostum. Jamie Doran is with us, independent documentary filmmaker who directed the 2002 film, Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. In 2003, Democracy Now! became the first U.S. news outlet to air the film. He joins us by Democracy Now! video stream from England. And with us in Boston, Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy at Physicians for Human Rights, the group that discovered the site of the mass graves of the Taliban POWs.

Susannah, let's start with you. Talk about what happened back in 2001, why you're so deeply concerned about the new vice president of Afghanistan, Dostum.

SUSANNAH SIRKIN: Yes, well, a large group of fighters, mostly Taliban, surrendered to General Dostum's Northern Alliance, which was working as an ally of the United States at a time when indeed U.S. special forces, as you mentioned, were on the ground. And these surrendered prisoners were loaded like sardines into trucks, according to a lot of testimony and evidence that we have, and transported across the desert. Many of them suffocated, probably within days, because they were not given water. They were locked up in these, essentially, coffins, packed in. We have reports of gunshots being fired into the trucks, possibly to create air holes, but indeed the way in which they were fired indicates that they were fired straight into the trucks, so killing some of the surrendered prisoners. And then, reportedly, they were all brought across to this area now known as Dasht-e-Leili near the Sheberghan prison.

Physicians for Human Rights sort of came upon this site when we were visiting the horrific conditions—or, discovered the horrific conditions in Sheberghan, which is near the northern capital of Mazar-e-Sharif, the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. And we found that prisoners in Sheberghan were dying, dozens a day, for lack of food, illness, horrible sanitation. And we noticed that there were bodies on the surface, or remains, bones, etc. And within a month or two, under United Nations auspices, we did a mapping of this grave and went back and exhumed a number of bodies and indeed documented that the deaths were consistent with suffocation.

And it appears that U.S. forces were certainly cognizant of these deaths. We know this because Physicians for Human Rights actually filed a Freedom of Information Act query in 2006, and eventually we had to sue to get the information. And when it came out, we have reports from U.S. officials that indeed they knew that as many as 2,000 surrendered prisoners had died in this—what we call a "convoy of death," and also that witnesses were reportedly tortured and executed, eyewitnesses to these crimes. And we've been advocating for a full-out investigation by the international community and by the United States, and of course by the Afghan government itself, ever since. Now it's 12 years and counting, and we still do not know what really happened at Dasht-e-Leili.

AARON MATÉ: Well, can you lay out how these investigations have progressed, in terms of how this went down under the Bush administration, and then, when Obama took office, calling for an investigation, and then one concluding last year but not being made public?

SUSANNAH SIRKIN: Yes, well, Physicians for Human Rights and other human rights groups have repeatedly called for an independent investigation. And in 2008, when we uncovered evidence that there had been apparent tampering of the site, we were able to obtain satellite imagery that showed that the pieces of the site had actually been destroyed. And when that was revealed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Risen in a front-page New York Times story, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked President Obama if the U.S. government was finally going to investigate this apparent major war crime, and President Obama said, "If this has happened, we will certainly find out all the facts, and we must, if there are allegations of serious crimes in which our forces may have been involved, and certainly our allies." And I have to say that, since then, we have absolutely no evidence of any serious investigation conducted by the Obama administration.

What Jim Risen's New York Times piece also revealed is that, under the Bush administration, three separate federal investigations were basically shut down, and that includes FBI agents on Guantánamo who were interviewing detainees who had been brought from Sheberghan prison to Guantánamo and who had started talking about this massacre. They were told not to pursue those queries any further and not to gather that information. And the war crimes ambassador at the State Department also wanted to go up to Dasht-e-Leili and was prevented from doing so. And the Senate investigation was also stopped. So, that was under Bush. And the president, the current president, has basically a year ago said, "We've completed an investigation, and we are satisfied that the U.S. was not involved." End of story, full stop, no transparency whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2009, as you said, New York Times reporter James Risen, who's now being prosecuted by the Obama administration for another story he broke, not wanting to give up a source on that—Risen spoke about his findings on Democracy Now!

JAMES RISEN: The evidence was overwhelming that something had happened and that it was the responsibility of the Bush administration to look into this or at least to push for an international investigation, because Dostum had been on the CIA payroll, was part of a U.S.-backed alliance that was taking over Afghanistan. And what I found was, time after time, in different agencies and as far—and in the White House, Bush administration officials repeatedly ignored evidence or just decided or discouraged efforts to open investigations into the massacre.

AMY GOODMAN: Soon after James Risen's report was published in The New York Times in 2009, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked President Obama about opening a new investigation.

ANDERSON COOPER: It now seems clear that the Bush administration resisted efforts to pursue investigations of an Afghan warlord named General Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll. It's now come out there were hundreds of Taliban prisoners under his care who got killed.


ANDERSON COOPER: Some were suffocated in a steel container. Others were shot, possibly buried in mass graves. Would you support—would you call for an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, the indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention, so what I've asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known, and we'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts gathered up.

ANDERSON COOPER: But you wouldn't resist categorically an investigation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that we have to know about that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama on CNN in 2009, actually, interestingly, in Ghana. Jamie Doran, you have been following this story for well over a decade. What about President Obama's response and what's happened since? You were just recently in Afghanistan. And your response to Dostum, the general, becoming the vice president of the country?

JAMIE DORAN: Yeah, well, I think it's kind of a picture of Afghan politics that you can have a man, as you said at the very beginning of your program, where the president, the new president, described him as a murderer and then appoints him as his vice president simply for pragmatism purposes to get 13 percent of the vote. Uzbeks represent 13 percent of the entire electorate. Dostum leads the Uzbeks. [Ashraf] Ghani needed Dostum by his side in order to win that election.

AARON MATÉ: Jamie Doran, when we had Jim Risen on our show, he was skeptical that U.S. special forces were involved in this massacre. What's your take on that?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, first of all, you probably don't know this, but I actually gave Jim Risen the FBI contacts that led to his story and his front-page news. So, you know, let's clear that up right away. And the FBI agent was in fact a man called Dell Spry, an extraordinary man, who reported his findings from Guantánamo to his bosses in Washington. He was told, "Don't"—you know, "Get away from that. Don't let us—don't continue investigations. Don't file any report." Dell refused to buckle, if you like, and insisted in filing yet another report, even under threat from his superiors.

I think it's been a great shame that Obama, we thought—you know, we understood Bush would want to hide as much as possible. We thought Obama might be a fresh broom. It's not been the case. He, too, has not got involved. He has not pushed it in any way. Dostum is now the vice president of the country. It's quite bizarre. You know, I don't know if you're aware that Dostum actually apologized for his war crimes last year in the run-up to the election—again, an example of pragmatism. He apologized, but wasn't specific. He just tried to give a kind of general apology for all the terrible things he had done. And the Afghan people seem to have bought that.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2011, Jamie, WikiLeaks published a classified cable from then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry about Dostum's return to Afghanistan. Eikenberry wrote in a 2009 cable, quote, "Dostum's return would endanger much of the progress made in Afghanistan over the past five years, create a source of friction in the Afghan government's relations with the international community, and could well cost Karzai's government the continued support of the United States and most of the international community." Your response?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, you know, I'm still waiting for the massive protest from the White House or elsewhere over the fact that a murderer has been appointed vice president of Afghanistan. I mean, it really is that simple. It was fascinating during the election that [Ashraf] Ghani did not even bring a single photograph of Dostum when he went south to kind of to the Pashtun areas. And as everyone—if you go down there, everyone down there knows what Dostum did. Most of them, or many of them we've met, have relatives who were in that convoy and who died in the most horrific circumstances.

And one of the questions that, you know, doesn't seem to come up too often is: Why were they there for up to 10 days in those containers? And my information is: Because Americans on the ground demanded that every single person coming off the containers had to be identified to ensure that no Qaeda—no al-Qaeda slipped through. And so, these men were forced to stay in those containers for all those days in searing heat, suffocating, biting into each other's limbs to try and get fluid of any kind, because, as far as I've been told, the Americans needed to know the identity of every single person.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is where, at Sheberghan prison, is this right, that John Walker Lindh was discovered? Can you explain who he is and the significance of this?

JAMIE DORAN: Yeah, Sheberghan prison. No, well, what happened was that when that the thousands surrendered at Kunduz—I think it was 8,300 surrendered at Kunduz, a bunch of them—but 700 broke away and went to a place called Qala-i-Jangi, a fortress, which is actually controlled these days by Dostum, but went to Qala-i-Jangi, and they were held in Qala-i-Jangi. There was a revolt. Most of them were killed. American special forces, British special forces were involved in the fight. John Walker Lindh was one of the survivors of that attack. And it is quite fascinating that John Walker Lindh's private eye came to this very office to see me to ask whether or not, you know, I had come across Lindh, and had he been involved in any of the fighting, any of the trouble. Sure enough, he then showed me footage of where Lindh claimed to have been. And my cameraman was sitting beside me and said, "That's where they were shooting from." They were trying to prove that Lindh wasn't involved at all, when in fact he was directly involved, which is probably why he bought the 20 years.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break and then come back to this discussion and a clip of your film, Jamie, this remarkable film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death; also speaking with Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: Jamie Doran, I wanted to ask you—we're going to play a clip of your film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death. And can you set the scene for us, how you went about telling this story?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, I mean, it's funny. Just a few moments ago, you mentioned John Walker Lindh. The entire kind of press corps became fascinated by the American Taliban and literally ran to follow that story, when at the same time we had been told on the ground in Afghanistan that something very bad has happened, that some people had been tortured and maybe murdered at Sheberghan itself, which is why we ended up basically being the only journalists going in that direction, while everyone else was chasing Walker Lindh. And what we managed to do was get soldiers, first of all, to persuade soldiers, Afghan soldiers, who had been present throughout, to actually talk to us on camera and to tell us, including the one who admitted to shooting into the containers and killing prisoners—you know, they started to tell us the information. And literally, it was over a year investigation that we carried out in order to bring to the screen what we found.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to turn right now, as we continue to talk about Afghanistan's new vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum—his rise coming despite his involvement in the 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban POWs—we're turning to the excerpt of Jamie Doran's documentary, Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. Jamie traveled to the site of the massacres and the mass graves. The witnesses who testified in the film are unidentified, have their faces obscured, because they're afraid. But two of them are now dead. The clip begins with our guest, filmmaker Jamie Doran.

JAMIE DORAN: Originally loaded onto trucks at Kunduz, many of these men were crammed 200 to 300 at a time into the backs of sealed containers. After around 20 minutes, the prisoners began crying out for air.

EYEWITNESS: [translated] The weather was very hot. They put too many people inside the containers. Many died because there was no air.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many containers were at Qala-i-Jangi when you were there?

EYEWITNESS: [translated] The condition of them was very bad, because the prisoners couldn't breathe, so they shot into the containers, and some of them were killed.

EYEWITNESS: [translated] They told us to stop the trucks, and we came down. After that, they shot into the containers. Blood came pouring out of the containers. They were screaming inside.

JAMIE DORAN: One Afghan soldier admits that he personally murdered prisoners.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] I hit the containers with bullets to make holes for ventilation, and some of them were killed.

JAMIE DORAN: You specifically shot holes into the containers. Who gave you those orders?

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] My commanders ordered me to hit the containers for ventilation, and because of that, some prisoners died.

JAMIE DORAN: But this was no humanitarian gesture. Rather than shooting into the roofs of the containers, the soldiers fired at random, killing those nearest the walls. A local taxi driver had called in at a petrol station on the road to Sheberghan.

TAXI DRIVER: [translated] I smelled something strange and asked the attendant where the smell was coming from. He said, "Look behind you." There were three trucks with containers fixed on them. Blood was running from the containers. My hair stood on end. It was horrific.

JAMIE DORAN: Whether or not the prisoners in the containers were ever really destined to reach Sheberghan must be open to question. The jail was full, and those already incarcerated were facing hardships of a different kind at the hands of American soldiers. They were reluctant to talk, particularly when the prison chiefs hovered close by, listening to our conversation. But one Taliban, who had been filmed during the surrender, was more forthcoming when we interviewed him out of earshot of the prison guards.

TALIBAN MEMBER: [translated] They were searching for bin Laden and questioning us about al-Qaeda. They were cruel. They took some of our men to Cuba, and they did a lot of things in here which scared us. The American commandos beat many of us to scare us into talking.

JAMIE DORAN: One of the Afghan officers, present at the time, confirms his story.

AFGHAN OFFICER: [translated] They cut their hair and beards, mainly the Arab prisoners. Sometimes they chose one for pleasure, took the prisoner outside, beat them and then returned them to the prison. But sometimes they were never returned, and they disappeared. The prisoner disappeared. I was a witness. They came after two or three days. They broke some prisoners' necks and were beating others. They were crying, but everyone ignored them.

JAMIE DORAN: These things you saw specifically yourself?

AFGHAN OFFICER: [translated] Yes.

JAMIE DORAN: But for those prisoners crammed inside the containers, a quick death would have come as a blessing. Some of them remained for days in the desert before reaching Sheberghan. Accounts from survivors talk of licking the sweat off each other's bodies and even biting their fellow captives in a desperate effort to gain fluid in any form. The Pentagon has stated frequently that it knew nothing of the container convoy.

WITNESS: [translated] The Americans were in charge.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Where were they? On the walls or near the gates of the fort?

WITNESS: [translated] They were standing at the front gates, where the prisoners were.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] When we got to Sheberghan prison, there were some Americans and some Afghan soldiers. They wanted to unload the trucks, and they were taking charge of the area.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many American soldiers were there?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] About 150 to 160. We didn't count the number.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] What were the Americans doing in the prison?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They were there to make sure the prison was secure. There were so many Americans, and they were all armed and wearing their uniforms.

JAMIE DORAN: As the containers were opened, the full extent of the carnage became apparent. One soldier, who has since fled from Afghanistan, describes the scene in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] I shall never forget the sensation as long as I live. It was the most revolting and most powerful stench you could ever imagine: a mixture of feces, urine, blood, vomit and rotting flesh. It was a smell to make you forget all other smells you ever experienced in your life.

JAMIE DORAN: For 10 days, the Red Cross tried to get access but were refused. They were told that they couldn't enter because American soldiers were working inside. And this picture taken at Sheberghan on December 1st, 2001, during the period when the containers were arriving at the prison, confirms their presence. Witnesses speak of U.S. soldiers searching the dead for identification before insisting that the Afghans remove the bodies from the prison. The Pentagon, however, will not comment.

ROBERT FOX: It was particularly important to find any identification on these bodies, because they were desperate for intelligence on al-Qaeda. They had underestimated the strength of al-Qaeda and its spread. They knew very little about it. So, human sensibilities did go out of the window.

JAMIE DORAN: The healthy captives were led into the prison and the dead packed into single containers. But many of the prisoners had not died. Some were so badly wounded they were thrown back into the containers with the dead. Others were simply unconscious following the journey to Sheberghan.

Using a small tourist camera to avoid detection, we traveled to the deserts of Dasht-e-Leili, just 10 minutes from the prison, with two drivers who agreed to show us where they were ordered to take the containers.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Some of the Taliban were injured, and others were so weak they were unconscious. We brought them to this place, which is called Dasht-e-Leili, and they were shot there, there and over there.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They took my truck and loaded a container onto it, and I carried prisoners from Qala-i-Jangi to Sheberghan, and after that, to Dasht-e-Leili, where there were shot by the soldiers. I made four trips backwards and forwards with the prisoners.

JAMIE DORAN: The mounds of sand show clearly where many of the bodies lie. Human bones and a few pieces of clothing with Pakistani labels are all that remain of those buried near the top of the piles.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many people were you carrying?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] About 140 to 150 each time.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Did you bring them here?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] What was done with these people?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They were brought here and shot.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] They were alive?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Some of them were alive. Some of these were injured, and the rest were unconscious.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] When you brought the prisoners here, were there any American soldiers with you?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes, they were with us.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Here, at this spot?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes, here.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many American soldiers were with you?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Lots of them. Maybe 30 to 40. They came with us the first two times, but I didn't see them on the last two trips.

JAMIE DORAN: If American soldiers were involved in covering up their role at Sheberghan prison, it would border on war crimes. If they stood by as the summary execution of prisoners took place, when they could have intervened, this would be positively criminal. But could the United States argue they were not in a responsible position?

ROBERT FOX: They would not have taken orders from Afghans. They would have been in charge of security there; therefore, it is an American command, therefore it is ultimately an American responsibility for whatever went on under the eyes of those American soldiers.

ANDREW McENTEE: It's quite clear that because you have film evidence of a mass grave, people confessing, that the relevant authorities, be they American, Afghani or international, must carry out an investigation. You have identified the site of a mass grave. You've identified bodies in those graves. And it's quite clear again that pathologists, forensic pathologists, exhuming the bodies, could identify the cause of death and, I think, very importantly, could identify who these people are, because their families have the right to know. They have been disappeared involuntarily after being murdered.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Jamie Doran's film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, the film looking at how Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum orchestrated the killing of up to 2,000 Taliban POWs in 2001. Dostum was sworn in as Afghanistan's new vice president yesterday. Jamie Doran, in this minute that we have left, what does this mean for the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan relationship with the United States? Today, the new president, Ashraf Ghani, is signing the bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which will keep up to 10,000 U.S. soldiers there, something Hamid Karzai wasn't willing to sign.

JAMIE DORAN: Well, again, Dostum is quite a divisive character. The reason that [Ashraf] Ghani wanted him on board was largely the Uzbek vote, but also his representation, if you like, in the north. [Ashraf] Ghani is well known amongst the Pashtun population. He needs to carry the north with him if they're going to keep Afghanistan together and keep the battle against the Taliban going. So, in that way, you know, he had very, very little choice. The real power in northern Afghanistan is not him. It's not even Abdullah Abdullah. It's another man entirely. But Dostum is, if you like, a middleman to them who can actually keep it together. But it's, frankly, a shocking state of affairs when a man who has been accused of being a murderer by his own president is now the vice president. That's beyond my understanding.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Doran, we want to thank you for being with us, independent documentary filmmaker. We'll link to our broadcast of the film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death.

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 11:38:21 -0400
Obama Administration Again Sides With Abusive Loan Servicers, This Time on Student Loans

A corrosive development is the ease with which lenders steal extract income which is not properly theirs from borrowers through what is at best incompetence and in far too many cases is fraud. This pattern has repeats itself again and again: in mortgage servicing, with debt collection, and more and more with student loan servicing.

A big part of why servicers, who are less supposedly disreputable than kneecapping debt collectors, keep getting away with misconduct is that most borrowers are too broke to fight bogus charges and the cascading damage that results, often from interest rates ratcheting into default levels. And even when borrowers go to court, judges are often unwilling to side with consumers against large, legitimate-looking loan servicers.

But even worse is that the Obama Administration has repeatedly thrown its weight behind predatory servicers. The so-called National Mortgage Settlement of early 2012, which was a Federal/49 state attorney general pact, amounted to a second bailout of major banks. Many of the loans originated after the 2002 refi boom that were securitized hadn’t been transferred to the securitization trusts as stipulated by clear cutoff dates. The contracts were designed to be rigid, so legal after-the-fact fixes weren’t possible. Yet these trusts needed to have clear title to properties in order to foreclose.

No one in the officialdom wanted to expose that investors might be holding an empty bag, or what Adam Levitin called securitization fail, since the liability to banks was enormous. So mortgage servicers routinely submitted incomplete or incorrect documents, since judges (until some wised up) assumed homeowners were deadbeats, and later took to various forms of fabrication in order to be able to foreclose.

One might argue that the Administration had few good choices, given the systemic risk, but the one it chose, of yet again covering up for bad conduct and giving the banks a “get out of liability almost free” card was among the worst.

As a new story by Shahien Nasiripour in the Huffington Post tells us, the Administration is now giving student loan servicers the “too big to fail” kid gloves treatment. The apparent justification is that correcting the records of borrowers who may have gone into default through not fault of their own would lead schools with bad servicers to lose access to Federal student aid, which could prove to be crippling to them.

So understand what that means: the law was set up to inflict draconian punishments on schools that used servicers that screw up and/or cheat on a regular basis, presumably because the consequences to borrowers were so serious. But rather than enforce the law, which would have such dire consequences for bad actors as to serve as a wake-up call for everyone else, the Administration has thrown its weight fully behind the education-extraction complex.

The key parts of Shahien’s story:

The US Department of Education is turning its back on at least 1,000 borrowers in favor of shielding their former colleges from potentially crippling sanctions that would have resulted from high rates of default on federal student loans…

“Borrowers aren’t getting any relief or similar consideration from the Education Department,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the California-based Institute for College Access & Success, which advocates affordable education. “If the school isn’t held accountable for the default, then the borrower shouldn’t either.”

As many as 20 schools won’t lose access to critical federal student aid programs, an Education Department official said Wednesday. Losing access to taxpayer-provided student aid would be the equivalent of a death sentence for most colleges. The institutions that were let off the hook include for-profit schools, private and public colleges, and historically black colleges and universities, the official said on a conference call organized for news media.

“As many as 20 schools” being given a waiver they clearly don’t deserve suggests that the number of borrowers being thrown under the bus is considerably larger than 1000. Huffington Post identified 13, of which seven are for-profits and four started out as black colleges. And mind you, the schools have to be abjectly bad at making and servicing loans to be subject to the loss of Federal aid:

Schools whose former students subsequently default on their federal student loans at unacceptably high rates can cost their current and future students access to federal grant and loan programs. Penalties kick in once a school’s default rate exceeds 30 percent over three straight years.

The “get out of jail for free” card applies to servicers that screwed up by billing students for only some of their loans, and later declared the students to be in default on loans they didn’t know about. While that may sound nuts, recall that students typically sign loan agreements and the proceeds go to the educational institution. Moreover, payments are usually deferred while the student is still in school. So it isn’t hard to see that a student, having signed loan documents over the years, might not realize that they were to different lenders and hence they’d down the road be facing multiple bills. Shahien explains:

The reason has to do with so-called split-servicing, or a situation in which the Education Department has assigned a borrower’s loans to multiple specialists that collect monthly payments. In November 2011, Cynthia Battle, an Education Department official, told college financial aid administrators that some 500,000 borrowers with federal student loans were being forced to make multiple monthly payments to different loan companies….

Borrowers are forced to deal with multiple servicers for a variety of reasons. In some instances, they took out Education Department-guaranteed loans from banks under the Federal Family Education Loan program, or FFEL — before Congress ended the program in 2010 — then returned to school in recent years and took out new loans under the Direct Loan program.

Another example includes undergraduate student borrowers who entered school in the fall of 2008. These borrowers may have taken out FFEL loans from banks for the first two years of college, then got loans directly from the Education Department for their junior and senior years.

Mind you, that 500,000 figure is now nearly three years stale, and the Department of Education has refused to update it. That might be because the DoE was evidently trying to reduce the number of students who dealt with multiple servicers. One can guess it hasn’t tried hard enough. For instance, outreach efforts have excluded student borrowers subject to split servicing:

Last year, in a move celebrated by the White House, the Obama administration directly emailed millions of borrowers, urging them to consider repayment plans that would cap their monthly payments based on earnings. Borrower advocates said they were unaware of any similar efforts directed at borrowers who were behind on one set of their federal student debt, but current on their other Education Department loans.

Let us be clear on what happened: the Administration could have chosen to give the servicers on their screw-up, while also requiring them to take student loans out of default if the student hadn’t been billed for them and gotten delinquency notices prior to being told they were in default. If the side that has made the error that put the problem in motion is forgiven, why isn’t the party suffering harm also given a break? That is not how this is going down:

[Jeff] Baker [a senior official at the Education Department's Federal Student Aid office] dryly noted in his memo that even though schools were let off the hook, “the borrowers’ defaulted loan remains in its current status for collection and other purposes.”

So these students are getting a painful lesson at a tender age: financial predators have a strong and sympathetic constituency in government.

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 11:03:14 -0400
Bring Social Justice in From the Cold as We Get Closer to a Global Climate Change Deal

2014 1001 global stShahanara, pictured here, stood in flood water near the camp she has been staying at for five months since her house was destroyed in the floods in the village of Puteakhal in Bangladesh. (Photo: Oxfam International)The UN Climate Summit in New York brought together politics, business and civil society to build up momentum for major climate change talks in Paris next year. After the disappointments of the acrimonious Copenhagen meeting in 2009, there is now a chance for a global agreement on action against climate change. Low carbon development pledges and substantial financing of the Green Climate Fund are one side of the coin.

But climate justice is also about social justice, and leaders must address the demands and respect the needs of people most vulnerable and already suffering from the impacts of climate change. The world’s poorest people are the worst affected by climate change and these groups were certainly represented in New York, but will they be listened to?

If it is to have a lasting impact, the Paris meeting must successfully integrate a “top-down” global agreement to restrict global warming to 2°C, together with a “bottom-up” strategy whereby countries set their own contributions to reduced emissions. However this latter strategy must go beyond emissions and do more to ensure that action on climate change listens to the grassroots and prioritises the world’s poorest and most vulnerable groups.

Grassroots Concern

The summit looked promising for proponents of an inclusive, “bottom-up” strategy. Its key themes included forests, agriculture and resilience to climate change, all of which have a sizable body of evidence to show that placing people directly affected at centre stage is a critical opportunity for success. There was also a thematic session on Voices from the Climate Front Lines which gave a platform to children, women and indigenous people suffering the effects of climate change.

However the outcomes don’t match the hype. There were specific examples of progress: the president of Peru outlined a strategy for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation that he said would put the country on a path to sustainability by reaching out to indigenous groups and securing a vast area of land under indigenous rights.

He won public support from both Germany and Norway, and France also pledged funds to help the poor cope with climate change, but the global commitment to social justice called for by the Rights and Resources Initiative and the World Resources Institute was largely missing.

The anticipated, voluntary New York declaration on forests was marred by Brazil’s refusal to sign up, and the seven action statements released following the summit directly address local people’s rights and roles just twice (and one of these requires action from indigenous civil society groups rather than national or international governments).

Similarly, the Global Agricultural Alliance aims to secure “climate smart” agriculture for 500m farmers by 2030. However it was left to civil society organisations to release a joint statement prioritising making food systems socially just and protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in these efforts.

The recently published New Climate Economy report outlines a vision for “better growth, better climate”, a win-win scenario that ties investment and innovation to poverty and hunger reduction. But while investment and innovation may be able to secure the 70% more calories they estimate humans will collectively require by 2050, it is unclear how it will address the political aspects of access to those calories, and whether such strategies can support the livelihoods and resilience of the poorest farmers.

Climate Justice, Social Justice

Without putting social justice at the core of our thinking on climate action, we risk harming the most vulnerable groups of people. For example environmental concerns have been used by big corporations and national governments to justify claiming land for themselves, a process known as green grabbing that threatens the well-being of groups dependent on natural resources. Perhaps we can eventually find a way to put people on an equal footing with the green economy but, judging from developments in New York, we don’t seem to be there yet.

Paris must be about much more than the pledges on emissions and the green economy that have dominated the headlines since the UN summit. It appears New York was yet another example of a big international climate forum recognising the importance of social justice (itself a big achievement) without actually clarifying how it will be built into objectives or commitments. People will remain on the agenda, but not quite centre stage.

Opinion Wed, 01 Oct 2014 10:45:35 -0400
Why an Unequal Planet Can Never Be Green

2014 1001 green stA scene from the 400,000-strong People's Climate March in New York, September 21, 2014. (Photo: Michael O'Brien)What is it going to take to save the planet from environmental devastation?

Sheer people power? We certainly saw that on the eve of last week’s UN Climate Summit in New York. Some 400,000 marchers packed the streets of Manhattan. Millions more rallied the same day in over 2,600 other actions in 162 countries.

Or can simple shaming get world leaders to start seriously addressing the climate change challenge? We saw some serious shaming last week, too.

Spoken-word poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands — the nation climate change most immediately endangers — helped open Tuesday’s UN summit with an open letter to her baby daughter that reportedly brought many of the 120 world leaders present to tears.

That letter, unfortunately, wouldn’t be enough to bring those world leaders to their senses. Last week’s summitry, a Christian Science Monitor analysis notes, left the international community “without a comprehensive strategy to fight climate change,” just the hope that maybe the next summit “would enact a plan to slow and eventually reverse the upward growth of global carbon emissions.”

People have been entertaining hopes along that line, British commentator George Monbiot has observed, ever since world leaders first started gathering for environmental summits back in 1992

“These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed,” Monbiot explains. “Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires.”

Expecting these governments to protect the biosphere, Monbiot adds, makes no more sense than “expecting a lion to live on gazpacho.”

Why should that be the case? Over recent decades, analysts and activists have made all sorts of links between the increasing degradation of our global environment and the increasing concentration of our global wealth.

The super rich, for starters, stomp out a huge carbon footprint. The best symbol of this stomping? That may be the private jet.

These high-powered playthings of the global elite emit six times more carbon per passenger than normal commercial jets. Between 1970 and 2006, the number of private jets worldwide multiplied by ten times over.

The super rich don’t just consume at rates that dwarf the consumption of mere financial mortals. Their profligate spending stimulates endless consumption all the way down the economic ladder.

“Large income gaps,” as Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill point out in their book Enough Is Enough, “lead to unhealthy status competition and consumption of materials and energy beyond what’s necessary to meet people’s needs.”

In more equal societies, analysts note, most people can afford the same things. In that environment, things don’t matter all that much.

But things become a powerful marker of social status in unequal societies where most people can’t afford the same things. In these societies, you either accumulate more and bigger things or find yourself labeled a failure.

How do we begin to reverse this endless consumption cycle? We can overcome “socially and environmentally destructive status competition,” social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in their just-published pamphlet A Convenient Truth, by working to “extend democracy into the economic sphere.”

Firms with worker representatives on their governing boards, employee-owned companies, and co-op enterprises “typically have much smaller pay differences within them,” note Wilkinson and Pickett, the authors of the landmark bestseller The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

We also need to work together, suggests Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, to start evolving the “community provisioning of basic needs,” through, for instance, publicly owned utilities that provide households power and heat at sustainably reasonable prices.

All this working together won’t be easy. People, at some level, are going to have to trust each other, notes Bill Kerry of the UK’s Equality Trust. But inequality undercuts trust. The more unequal a society, research has shown, the less trust within it.

The less democracy as well. In nations where income and wealth concentrate the most severely, the wealthy can wield their wildly disproportionate political power to derail the environmental reforms that threaten their gravy trains.

Energy company CEOs, for instance, can squelch limits on carbon emissions that endanger their corporate profits — and personal rewards.

These execs are now using “their considerable financial and political power,” notes veteran activist Chuck Collins, “to block sane energy policy, extract taxpayer subsidies, thwart renewables, and limit consumer choice.”

The wealthy can also employ their wealth to end run sane resource policies that do make it into effect. In drought-ravaged California, for instance, wealthy landowners in Montecito, news reports relate, have been “paying more than ten times the going rate for water” to sidestep new local water use limits.

These wealthy landowners are having water trucked in from private wells elsewhere in the state “in a desperate bid to save their manicured lawns and towering topiary.” The trucks are destroying local roads.

Other Montecito affluents are rushing to drill private wells on their own property — at $100,000 a pop — that could eventually empty local aquifers.

“If the world can’t find a way to collectively curb emissions by its largest users,” policy analyst Jim Tankersley noted last week, “rich countries — and rich people within those countries — will buy relief that the poorest among us cannot.”

The struggle against environmental degradation and for greater equality, in short, need to go hand in hand. A deeply unequal globe can never be sustainable. The “greenest” major city on Earth, Oslo, doesn’t just happen to sit in Norway, one of the world’s most equal nations.

Environmental activists increasingly understand this connection. Spreading that understanding — and acting on it — has now become our biggest challenge. We can solve both inequality and environmental decline, as the Earth Island Journal’s Annie Leonard sums up neatly, “but only if we see the two struggles as one.”

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 10:10:29 -0400
High-Flying Drones and Basement Wages: Alarming Trends in Package Delivery

2014 1001 mail stPostal Workers' National Day of Action to rally against privatizing and outsourcing of postal services, April 24, 2014. (Photo: American Federation of Government Employees)Their employer is the US Postal Service, but a few unlucky Bay Area letter carriers were hired only to find out their job is actually delivering groceries for online retailer Amazon at 4 a.m.

It’s an experimental program being staffed with City Carrier Assistants—the lowest tier of union letter carriers, permatemps who make $15-17 an hour. To find their way in the dark they’re issued miner-style headlamps.

“Some carriers hear about the program and they quit,” says longtime letter carrier Angela Bibb-Merritt. “They were under the impression they were going to be carrying mail and working in the daytime.” She worries people could be attacked and robbed, carrying groceries around at such a lonely hour.

You’ll hear no such worries in the breathless tech press, abuzz about experiments in package delivery. The grocery setup is unusual in that it relies on postal workers (though the lowest-paid ones). But most of these schemes are ways to circumvent the Postal Service and UPS.

Cuts to postal jobs and facilities are making existing service worse, helping create niche openings that for-profits are exploiting. Call it privatization by a thousand cuts.

If you work sorting, trucking, or delivering packages, are Amazon, Google, Walmart, and rideshare company Uber coming after your job next?

The Real "Drones"

E-commerce giant Amazon relies heavily on UPS and the Postal Service, but seems to be looking to change that. Its much-hyped trials of robot delivery drones (aviation regulators have put a hold on that for now) are the least of it. The company is testing out ways to replace union workers for every leg of a parcel’s trip.

For instance, it’s opening its own “sortation” plants to facilitate Sunday and holiday delivery, 15 of them this year. “When you see us announcing Sunday delivery, you can assume a sortation center is close by,” Vice President Mike Roth told the Seattle Times.

The function of these plants to sort packages by zip code so they’re trucked to the right post office for delivery—cutting out UPS and Postal Service sorting and trucking.

A lot of hype is concentrated on the “last mile” of delivery, till now mainly the terrain of UPS, FedEx, and especially the Postal Service, which completes the last mile even for roughly 30 percent of the other two shippers’ deliveries. The SurePost and SmartPost programs allow UPS and FedEx to lean on the public system by dropping off presorted packages at post offices for letter carriers to take the last mile.

Amazon already contracts with such companies as LaserShip and OnTrac, which have so far gotten away with categorizing their drivers as “independent contractors” instead of employees. A Huffington Post investigation called these drivers “the real Amazon drones.”

The piece profiled a LaserShip driver who was getting $1.50 per delivery, 150 deliveries a day. Sounds all right, $225 a day, till you start subtracting the costs drivers have to cover—car, insurance, gas, plus various mandatory paycheck deductions. Then factor in unpaid hours loading the van, and none of the protections of being an employee: overtime pay, workers’ compensation, tax withholding, health insurance, paid breaks, paid sick days, collective bargaining rights.

Rival FedEx just got zapped in federal appeals court for misclassifying as “independent contractors” 2,000 people who drive around in FedEx trucks, wearing FedEx outfits.

Taking a still lower road, taxi worker foe Uber and its copycats are bringing their ugly model of “fractional employment” to package delivery. It’s even less secure than being an “independent contractor” because each contract lasts only as long as a single delivery.


Supposedly as online replaces in-person shopping for everyday items, there’s a growing market for next-day, same-day—heck, even one-hour delivery.

Experiments concentrated in San Francisco and New York City are first targeting the spoiled-millennial demographic. Cringe along at a SiliconBeat profile of an eBay courier as she races in her own car to buy a laptop charger and ferry it to an Internet café before the 60-minute deadline.

The lucky recipient is a web designer who’d forgotten hers at home. Cost: $80 for the charger, $5 fee to eBay. The courier gets an hourly wage, undisclosed, and risks her neck all day checking the eBay app while driving.

Clearly this is wildly inefficient, as well as dangerous and eco-unfriendly. “I picture in my mind a big intersection with all these cars crashing into each other, all bringing someone’s toothpaste to them,” UPS driver Rafael Monterrosa told the tech news site Re/code.

And for this extreme version, the target demographic seems limited. As the Occupy movement taught us if we didn’t know before, most millennials aren’t rich and spoiled—they’re broke and indebted.

But retailers are pitching variations on this theme to a wider market. Walmart has floated the idea of asking in-person customers to drop off online orders on their way home, in exchange for discounts: just enough to cover the gas.

Reinventing the Wheel

It’s too bad for workers, but speedier delivery sounds like a boon for customers, right? Not so fast.

There’s a reason such experiments are clustered in cities where delivery addresses are dense, the most cost-efficient areas for any shipper. There’d be no profit in a version of Uber for, say, carrying prescriptions to rural seniors.

The beauty of the Postal Service is that it provides universal service at cheap, universal rates. Income from lower-cost services subsidizes higher-cost ones. What happens if for-profit companies skim off the lucrative business?

The results are already on display in many European countries where postal service has been partly or completely privatized. The private companies focus where the money is, but for regular people, service gets worse and prices skyrocket.

You can see a stratified system in the works here too, as the Postal Service tests its own same-day delivery program, MetroPost, in San Francisco, using lowest-tier letter carriers.

Yet “Say goodbye to next-day mail delivery” was the opening line of a recent article in the Erie Times-News.

That’s because the mail sorting plant in northwestern Pennsylvania is one of 82 the Postmaster General plans to shutter in January, just the latest round of such closings. These embattled plants do the same thing Amazon’s celebrated new “sortation centers” do, but for packages from any sender, not just Amazon.

Except when unionized, public-sector workers do it, it’s called antiquated rather than innovative.

Mail plants are busy in the e-commerce era. They should be expanding. Instead, closures have swamped remaining plants with mail. The resulting delays surely help create the demand for specialized, faster service—among those who can afford to pay. Which won’t be those of us whose jobs get Amazonized.

Package Lockers

A Bay-Area startup called Swapbox provides automated lockers in laundromats and convenience stores for shipping and receiving packages. You drop off the item you want to mail (in the promotional video, it’s a ukulele) in a locker; Swapbox packs and ships it. You can also have packages shipped to the locker.

It’s true this meets a need for apartment-dwellers who lack a stoop to receive shipments while they’re at work. But why not just pick up parcels at your local post office? There are still 31,000 of these across the country, a retail network “larger than McDonald’s, Starbucks and Walmart combined,” the Postal Service boasts.

Because real post offices are getting harder to use, that’s why—as hours are shortened, window clerk staffing is cut back, and customers wait in longer lines. Like the plant closures, it’s hard not to see post office cutbacks as sabotage from the top, creating opportunities for low-wage competitors.

In fact, Swapbox’s press release uses the cuts as a selling point: “Just last month, the USPS drastically cut hours at 21 of 39 post office stations in San Francisco. What if instead of running to your local post office, you had a ‘mini post office’ near your home—one that is open 24/7 and uses advanced robotics…”

No workers appear in Swapbox’s promotional video, as though the app itself does the work. But presumably, some invisible employee or “independent contractor” comes by with a box and a roll of tape to pack the ukelele, and a car to drive it to the post office or UPS store.

Labor Notes tried following up on the press release’s offer to interview Swapbox’s “brilliant” young entrepreneur-CEO. We wanted to know what kind of jobs these were: the pay, the hours, do you have to use your own car.

But the publicist backpedaled, suggesting the CEO could answer questions in writing. After we sent questions they both stopped responding at all.

More Than Staples

Google, eBay, and Amazon have all been testing their own versions of robotized package lockers. And the Postal Service too has launched lockers outside certain post offices in New York and D.C.

Like the self-checkout line at the grocery store, these GoPost lockers are a way of automating postal clerks’ work—instead of boosting window clerk staffing and post office open hours to meet the booming need.

Meanwhile clerks’ work is also being directly outsourced to low-paid Staples employees, at “postal counters” inside the stores. Postal unions are boycotting Staples over the deal. The Teachers (AFT) and the AFL-CIO have endorsed—and given the boycott a publicity boost for back-to-school shopping season.

In Berkeley, activists are drawing attention to the fight by occupying the sidewalk outside a Staples. They’ve maintained their tent camp and info table for two months so far, says letter carrier Bibb-Merritt. Police have come by and argued, but so far haven’t managed to run anyone off.

Turning back the race to the bottom in mail delivery may start with the Staples fight. “We have to make sure we have a movement that makes sure that post offices are not closed, period,” American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein said in January as the campaign began.

“In the long run, we fight for these expanded services to be done within those brick-and-mortar post offices, within the postal system. We aren’t afraid of efforts to try taking postal services to where the public is. But we have to do it in a way that protects the public.”

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News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 09:38:34 -0400
When a Cement Factory's Progress Drive Turns Deadly

The tranquility of the night in the community of Pajoques, San Juan Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, was broken in a violent escalation of the conflict between the Guatemala state’s business interests, and an indigenous Mayan community, that by the next morning left 11 dead and 20 wounded.

The violence began late in the evening on September 19, when community members reported the presence of 10 armed men that they identified as being from the San Gabriel cement factory. “It was around 9:30 pm when armed men arrived in Pajoques,” Maria López, a leader from the 12 communities in resistance, said in a phone interview. “When the community leaders approached them, they opened fire.”

Immediately one man was killed, and two others wounded.

The violence escalated when community members armed with machetes tried to block the workers’ exit from town. In the confrontation, several cars and a house were damaged. Eight more people were killed, and several others injured.

Community members began calling the National Police soon after the shooting started, but the police never arrived.

“The police did not want to accompany and assist the community in arresting the workers from the cement factory responsible for the murder of our neighbors,” López said. “They never came.”

The current escalation of violence near the San Juan Sacatepéquez project came after community-owned land had been expropriated for the construction of an access road to the cement plant. Community members who were associated with the construction of the cement factory sold their land to the road project, adding to the tension within the communities.

Pajoques is one of 12 indigenous Kaqchikel communities that organized to challenge the construction of San Gabriel cement factory, currently under construction by the company Cementos Progreso, in their territory in the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez.

The communities have decried the lack of transparency in the construction of the San Gabriel plant, and have expressed concern that the factory negatively affects their livelihoods and the environment. The communities have demanded that they be consulted prior to construction of the cement factory and roads in their territory.

In May 2007, a vote was held in the communities affected by the construction of the cement factory, where 8,946 community members voted against the construction of the factory, with four people voting in favor.

In their most recent statement to the press about the massacre, the leadership of the 12 communities in resistance said that they hold responsible President Otto Pérez Molina, the head of the National Civilian Police Telemaco Pérez, and the Novela family, owners of Cementos Progreso, for the violence and assault on their human rights.

“President Otto Pérez Molina has not heard or responded to the demands of the communities that have been raised on several occasions in regards to the mega-project that was installed without consultation,” the statement said.

The statement also stated that the powerful Novela family is liable for the “use of violence in the construction of this mega-project that threatens mother earth, and the rights of the community.”

According to a report from the Guatemalan Independent Media Center, published days after the violent attack on Pajoques, the Novela family and Cementos Progreso hold contracts for millions of dollars worth of development projects arranged by President Otto Pérez Molina and his Patriot Party. Cementos Progreso also made large contributions to the candidacy of Pérez Molina in the 2011 presidential election.

Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reports that the construction of the San Gabriel plant is estimated to cost as much as $720 million, and is set to be completed in 2016. Once completed, the cement factory will be one of the largest in Latin America, producing nearly 2.3 million tons of cement per year, which will be used internally in Guatemala.

The San Juan project includes the construction of the cement factory, a query, and a nine-mile highway that will connect the facility to the Inter-American Highway. The Guatemalan firm Productos Mineros Limited, a subsidiary of the Novela-owned Cementos Progreso, holds 80% of the shares of the project, with the remaining 20% owned by the Swiss multinational cement company Holcim—a company that purports to pride itself on social responsibility and respect for human rights.

Holcim declined to comment on the recent incident in San Juan Sacatepéquez for this report.

The construction of the San Gabriel cement factory comes at a time when the number of mega projects associated with Plan Mesoamerica—the rebranded Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP)—and other extractive projects have been expanding in Guatemala. In an interview with the online web-magazine Contra Poder, Cementos Progreso’s Vice President of Planning and Financing, José Raúl González, confirmed that the cement is being produced to meet Guatemala’s increasing construction needs, telling the reporter “the plan is to supply the local market.”

Yet as extractive and development projects have expanded, so too has the social conflict around these projects. Communities claim that of the 124 permits for exploration or exploitation of resources, no community has been consulted on the construction.

Across Guatemala, communities have challenged the construction of mega-projects such as San Gabriel by pointing to the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples to consultation by actors prior to the beginning of development projects in their territory, of which Guatemala is a signatory. They charge that their rights have been violated, and call on businesses like Cementos Progreso and the government to respect the right to consultation.

For a country that has historically seen severe conflict over access to land, the absence of community voices in the use of community land is troubling. The failure of the Guatemalan state and business to include the voice of indigenous communities in the construction of projects within indigenous communities has ensured that social conflict will follow and intensify.

The community leaders of San Juan Sacatepéquez have faced arrest warrants and violent attacks by factory workers long before this most recent attack. In one incident, men from the cement factory threatened to kill community members at a community meeting. In yet another incident, supporters of the cement company assaulted a fact-finding mission led by Daniel Pascual of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC) and international observers.

Despite the overwhelming intimidation, the communities have maintained their demand for dialogue, and an end to the repression.

“We have expressed our decision to dialogue and we have participated in diverse processes where we have expressed our opinion,” the community leaders declared in an August 2014 press release. “But the business, government, and mayors have not listened to our opinion, even though the law is on our side.”

The Guatemalan government has responded to the violent attack by issuing decree 06-2014, declaring a state of emergency in the 12 communities near San Juan Sacatepéquez, suspending civil liberties in the communities for 15 days.

In a press conference, Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla said that state of emergency was “for the purpose of stabilizing the area.” He also announced the deployment of 600 national police to the area.

The government announced the morning of September 22 the issuing of warrants for the arrest of 40 members of the communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez; 24 of which are for the violence of September 19. The other warrants were issued against leaders and organizers of the communities in resistance. At the time of publication, 5 arrests have been made.

1,000 military units have been deployed alongside the police forces to assist in the stabilization of the community, a degree of disproportionate use of force that has become the norm in Guatemala,

In a phone interview, Victor Hernández, a campesino in the community of Pilar I, describes the atmosphere as being “a state of fear.”

“There is no liberty,” said Hernández. “We are being occupied.”

For others, the presence of military in the communities has brought back painful memories of Guatemala’s dirty war.

“It feels as if we are returning to the era of the internal armed conflict,” says López. “The military is once again in our communities. The state is protecting the interests of the businesses, and not of the communities in struggle.”

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 09:07:55 -0400
Confronting Barbarism: ISIS, the United States and the Consequences of Torture

Instead of using ISIS's mocking use of orange jumpsuits as a pretext to continue to withhold information about US torture programs in Iraq and elsewhere, the United States should urgently confront its own barbarity in a courageous projection of democratic values.

2014 1001 suit st(Image: Troy Page / Truthout)In a televised address on August 7, President Obama announced that he had ordered "targeted" US airstrikes in northern Iraq against the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the pretext of a humanitarian intervention to help stranded Kurds and US diplomatic staff in Erbil. In his address, Obama said, "I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq." Just 47 days later, on September 23, a new phase in the war on terror had been declared, and US bombing was expanded into Syria.

There is ample reason to believe that Obama's August "humanitarian bombing" of ISIS targets in northern Iraq was equally about the protection of ExxonMobil and Chevron oil and gas production facilities in Erbil. It was a costly action. On August 19, US journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS in retaliation. On September 2, Steve Sotoloff, another US journalist, was beheaded by ISIS in a further act of retaliation. Both murders were accompanied by highly publicized beheading videos, with Foley and Sotoloff forced by ISIS to wear symbolic orange jumpsuits. A beheading video of British aid worker David Haines followed on September 13, with Haines also mockingly clad by his ISIS captors in an orange jumpsuit. President Obama's new war in Syria began 10 days later with full Congressional backing. British Prime Minister David Cameron quickly endorsed US bombing and received parliamentary approval for Britain to join the US campaign in Iraq.

The New Yorker's John Cassidy has labeled this Obama's "YouTube war." The carefully choreographed ISIS beheading videos, with their mocking use of orange jumpsuits, were a major factor driving both public opinion and Obama's decision-making. The actions of ISIS jihadists are barbaric, but they represent something worse than publicized incidents of terrorist inhumanity. Yasser Munif, co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, believes the moral taunting on the beheading videos was designed to lure the United States into wider war in the Islamic world, thereby elevating ISIS as the primary anti-American force in the region. It is as if the moral compass of the universe has gone tilt as the world descends into barbarism. The vertiginous sense of suspended morality is heightened by tens of millions of TV viewers and YouTube site visitors worldwide witnessing ISIS's open and brutal mockery of the United States and United Kingdom on supposedly moral grounds as they commit murder for the camera.

During September, with the ISIS beheadings and United States drive to war as background, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Obama administration have also been forced into a debate over how to respond to an August 27, District Court decision in New York ordering the release of 2,000 previously unpublished photos of US torture, brutality and death at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison and five other US detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been seeking release of the photos since 2004 in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. Obama and the DOD were opposed to the release of these photos, years before ISIS emerged, on the grounds that the images are so grisly, they would inflame anti-US sentiment in the Islamic world. However, with the ACLU's litigation on the verge of success, the photos and the war against ISIS have clearly become interrelated.

There is already a huge element of the absurd in the Obama administration's new war scenario that should provoke further debate about overall US policy in Central Asia. There are questions about the role that US and European actions played in incubating and arming ISIS in Syria, as well as clear evidence that Sunni distrust of the US-backed Shiite government in Baghdad has driven Iraqi Sunnis reluctantly into the hands of ISIS jihadists. There are open divisions and disagreements among national security experts in both parties and within Obama's military team about threat assessment, tactics, timing and the need for ground troops. Many activists on the ground in Syria question the motivation and potential efficacy of US bombing in their country.

In spite of these lingering uncertainties, Obama seemed to be responding primarily to the ISIS beheading videos in his September 24 speech to the UN General Assembly, when he described ISIS as a "network of death" and noted that their brutality "forces us to look into the heart of darkness." The clear implication is that war policy is being hurriedly thrown together without sober reflection because of a visceral reaction to globally publicized ISIS videos. With the pending court order to release the previously unpublished Abu Ghraib photos, the need for such reflection cannot be easily dismissed.

Should the photos be released? Should the United States openly look into its own "heart of darkness" while confronting ISIS? The timing of this decision follows more than a decade of official denial and obfuscation about the images. An estimated 108 captives died in US prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, including as many as 26 that the DOD has classified as homicides. Obama and Cameron are right to point out that ISIS jihadists are evil and lawless killers. Yet these photos are not about ISIS except to the extent they have tried to co-opt the symbolic imagery of orange US prison jumpsuits to rationalize their barbarity. Before Obama's new war escalates out of control or drags on for months or years with an inevitable need for ground troops, it seems advisable for the United States to finally confront its own barbaric actions and failed strategic decisions in the 13-year-old war on terror - not because of ISIS, but in spite of ISIS.

Orange Jumpsuits and the Alternative Reality of Torture

Nearly every news report explains that ISIS is making their victims wear orange jumpsuits as a mocking reference to the orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners at the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It is seldom mentioned that captives in the entire web of US prisons from Bagram in Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, were also made to wear orange jumpsuits. Further, the photos of torture, humiliation and death that have made it into the public domain from Abu Ghraib are even worse than Guantánamo, making it a more potent symbol of US human rights violations.

While the prison at Guantánamo is universally known, the public was unaware that the secretive prison at Abu Ghraib existed - housed in a torture facility used by Saddam Hussein before the US invasion - until a compact disc of digital photos taken by guards was accidentally discovered and reported in 2003. These images depicting widespread torture and violent abuse of prisoners by US troops were subsequently featured in investigative reports by The New Yorker and 60 Minutes II in 2004. When the story finally broke, Bush administration officials, from then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Bush himself, declared the atrocities at Abu Ghraib to be the work of "a few bad apples."

A total of 11 low-level enlisted Army soldiers were eventually convicted on charges varying from dereliction of duty to human rights abuses. A colonel was relieved of duty and a lieutenant colonel received a reprimand. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commanding officer at the prison, was cited for "dereliction of duty and shoplifting." In essence, no one was held responsible except a few low-level scapegoats.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib did not happen in a vacuum. It quickly became clear that Abu Ghraib was the end point in a causal chain that led all the way back to the Bush White House and Justice Department, where top administration officials were rewriting US laws defining torture. Following recommendations to President Bush from then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, the United States effectively opted out of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions on the rights to humane treatment for both prisoners of war and civilians. The Third Geneva Convention "bars torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, as well as outrages against the human dignity of prisoners of war, or POWs."

The Unintended Consequences of Torture

Writing in Foreign Policy, Steven R. Ratner, an expert on international law who has worked as an advisor to both the UN and the US State Department, makes it clear that torture does not work as advertised:

Seasoned interrogators consistently say that straightforward questioning is far more successful for getting at the truth. So, by mangling the [Geneva] conventions, the United States has joined the company of a host of unsavory regimes that make regular use of torture. It has abandoned a system that protects U.S. military personnel from terrible treatment for one in which the rules are made on the fly.

In losing sight of the crucial protections of the conventions, the United States invites a world of wars in which laws disappear. And the horrors of such wars would far surpass anything the war on terror could ever deliver.

The Bush administration also tried unsuccessfully to block the adoption of the UN Convention Against Torture in the General Assembly after more than 10 years of deliberation by UN member states. In spite of this failure at the UN, the United States continued to opt out of the Geneva Convention against torture. This was done by rewriting domestic laws on human rights and defining captured prisoners as "unlawful enemy combatants" who had no legal standing as prisoners of war, a decision that Obama continued to support until after his reelection in 2008. The Washington Post described the new regime of officially sanctioned torture in 2004:

In fact, every aspect of this new universe - including maintenance of covert airlines to fly prisoners from place to place, interrogation rules and the legal justification for holding foreigners without due process afforded most U.S. citizens - has been developed by military or CIA lawyers, vetted by Justice Department's office of legal counsel and, depending on the particular issue, approved by White House general counsel's office or the president himself.

In addition to the fabricated rationale for the invasion of Iraq and the invention of concepts such as "pre-emptive war" and "unlawful enemy combatants," the entire world has become aware of US practices such as extraordinary rendition (sending prisoners to countries outside the United States for torture and interrogation), enhanced interrogation techniques (e.g., water boarding and other forms of torture) and the continued operation of a string of prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq that have been repeatedly investigated for fundamental human rights violations.

Yet in August 2014, a 6,000 page, $40 million report produced by a months long investigation into US torture techniques by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was shelved after being heavily redacted by the CIA. Bowing to the CIA and pressure from the Obama administration, committee chairperson Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) issued a statement that the report is being "held for declassification at a later time."

The Long Road Back

War truly is hell. It always will be. Human rights violations occur in every war. What is new since the dawn of the ill-defined and never ending war on terror in 2001 is that the world's most economically powerful and heavily armed superpower has begun to untether itself from its foundational democratic moorings by making such violations a matter of de facto state policy - unapologetically. When moral outrage was expressed by some US senators during May 2004 hearings on the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) commented that he was "more outraged by the outrage" than by the overwhelming evidence of abuse, torture and violation of internationally sanctioned human rights.

Recent history in Central Asia makes it abundantly clear that the abandonment of democratic ideals and values by powerful nations such as the United States and Britain does nothing to stop terrorism and runs counter to the self-interests of democracies. The long road back from the past decade of state-sanctioned torture and systematic human rights violations begins with democratic openness.

The ACLU lawsuit is a timely case in point. The US Army still has more than 2,000 unreleased photos that document 400 cases of alleged abuse between 2001 and 2005 in Abu Ghraib and six other US prisons. Senators who have seen these images say that many of the photos are worse than the images that have been leaked from Abu Ghraib to date. 

The ACLU won a FOIA suit in federal District Court on August 27, 2014, in which Judge Alvin Hellerstein ordered the Department of Defense (DOD) to hand over the photos unless they can conclusively prove that their release would endanger American lives. If the judge maintains his ruling against the DOD, they will almost certainly be encouraged by the administration to appeal the decision. Obama has said that, "The most direct consequence of releasing them . . . would be to inflame anti-American public opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

The ISIS beheadings give the Obama administration a seemingly urgent rationale for continued secrecy in their refusal to release inflammatory photos of US war crimes committed in Islamic countries. This argument overlooks the fact that it is not possible to stop a descent into barbarism by consciously ignoring history.

More than 100,000 prisoners have been run through the US complex of prisons in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. Ignoring this reality is no longer an option. Releasing the photos and openly debating the actions and policies that led to their existence would be a more courageous projection of democratic values at this crucial juncture, sending a powerful signal that the United States stands by its core democratic values even when it is least convenient. It would also provide an opportunity for a much-needed reexamination of the premises for Obama's proposed bombing adventure in Syria, and by extension, of the longer-term war on terror. With Obama harking back to George W. Bush's initial Iraq war authorization in 2002 to rationalize his actions, it is a reexamination that is long overdue.

The August 27, 2014, District Court ruling on the FOIA request for the remaining Abu Ghraib photos can be downloaded at the ACLU website.

Opinion Wed, 01 Oct 2014 10:42:42 -0400