Truthout Stories http://www.truth-out.org Mon, 30 Mar 2015 12:25:32 -0400 en-gb The Submerged State http://www.truth-out.org/art/item/29941-the-submerged-state http://www.truth-out.org/art/item/29941-the-submerged-state ]]> laurenayo@gmail.com (Lauren Walker) Art Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400 On the News With Thom Hartmann: Senate Decides Social Policy Cuts, and More http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29940-on-the-news-with-thom-hartmann-senate-decides-social-policy-cuts-and-more http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29940-on-the-news-with-thom-hartmann-senate-decides-social-policy-cuts-and-more

In today's On the News segment: The US Senate holds a vote-a-thon to decide which proposals and policies will make it into the upper chamber's budget; US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein finally rules that we have a right to see the evidence of torturous acts; employers are moving away from actual paychecks to electronic payroll cards; and more.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

TRANSCRIPT:

Thom Hartmann here – on the best of the rest of Economic and Labor News...

You need to know this. If you thought the 2013 sequester was a disaster for our country, you should be pretty thankful that there's a Democrat in the White House. Last week, the United States Senate held a vote-a-thon to decide which proposals and policies would make it into the upper chamber's budget. Although the document is non-binding, it should cause some very real concern over what happens if Republicans win in 2016. According to the Senate Republicans, our nation should slash another $5 trillion in domestic spending, all while handing out more tax payer dollars to the military and lowering taxes on the rich. To put that number in perspective, consider that the 2013 sequester cut $1.5 trillion from our spending, and that was enough to slash the budgets of everything from the Centers for Disease Control to Border Security to Head Start. That massive cut cost our nation real jobs, and it slowed our economic growth. But, all that means little to Republicans who want to destroy our social safety net, all while giving the wealthy a tax cut, and boosting the paychecks of their buddies in the defense industry. $5 trillion in cuts is almost unimaginable, unless we consider a nation that stops protecting Americans from poverty and disease, and a nation that values war profiteers and billionaires over everything. That is not the nation that our parents and grandparents built, and we must never allow it to become reality. For the next two years, we have a president who can stop the worst of this legislation, but the time is now to make sure that we have another Democratic leader in 2016. If we don't stop the Republicans from destroying the social programs and agencies that make our country great, we may not get a chance to repair them before they're gone for good.

For the last decade, the ACLU has been fighting to expose the torture and abuse that has been committed in our name. Last week, US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein finally ruled that we have a right to see the evidence of those torturous acts. For the last 10 years, the ACLU has been locked in a legal battle over their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request, which asked the government to release photographs and records relating to the torture and even death of prisoners held by our nation around the world since 2003. The government denied that FOIA request, saying that the "disclosure would endanger Americans." But, Judge Hellerstein concluded that the government failed to prove how Americans would be in danger, and ordered that the photographs and records be released to the ACLU. That group's legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said, "Giving the government that kind of censorial power would have implications far beyond this specific context." As Americans, we have a right to know what has been done in our name, and this ruling is a victory for justice.

Quite a few employers have moved away from actual paychecks, to electronic payroll cards, and workers have been hit hard by fees and other problems. Finally, one state is stepping up to do something about this, and employees in Washington state may soon be better off as a result. Earlier this month, the Washington state legislature advanced a bill that would make sure all workers have an alternative to these predatory debit-like cards. In addition to federal legislation that may soon require all employers to disclose the fees and charges associated with these cards, workers should have real protection against the payroll card scheme. Those in favor of the cards claim that workers who don't have bank accounts can avoid check cashing fees and the ability to buy things online, but opponents point out that the cards charge exorbitant fees for cash withdrawals, balance inquires, and even calling customer service. No one should be subjected to these unjust fees because they want a job, and it's great news that at least one state is moving to protect workers.

Indiana is finding out that businesses aren't all in favor of discrimination. In the wake of Gov. Mike Pence singing a so-called "religious liberty" bill in his state, the list of companies standing up for LGBT rights just continues to grow. By last Friday, huge organizations like Apple, Yelp and even the NBA have come out against Pence's bill, saying that it legalizes discrimination. Over the weekend, the CEO of Angie's List put a stop to that company's expansion plans in Indiana, saying that they are looking for alternative locations for their headquarters in other states. Even religious groups like the Disciples of Christ denomination said that the bill is "distressing" and it is causing them "to reconsider their decision to hold their 2017 gathering in Indianapolis." Regardless of how lawmakers, including Gov. Mike Pence, try to spin this law as anything but LGBT discrimination, these businesses and the public who they serve won't be fooled. Good on these groups for refusing to discriminate against someone because of who they love.

And finally... Republican governors all around our country are slashing education to cover the cost of tax breaks for the rich. But, Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota wants to invest a portion of his state's budget surplus in universal pre-K. Rather than dishing out tax breaks, the Democratic governor actually raised taxes on the top two percent in his state, and it's turned in to quite a success. Republicans in Minnesota balked at the tax hike idea, saying that businesses would leave that state, but that hasn't happened. In fact, higher wages, stronger unions and better education systems have lured business to that state, and that's paying off in terms of more investment in the people of Minnesota. Universal Pre-K would ensure that every child starts school with stronger skills, and allow parents to work more hours instead of caring for kids. Families get the help they need to be stronger, and Minnesota gets a better educated workforce. This is what happens when progressive ideas are allowed to become real policy. Governor Dayton has proven that these ideas work for the state of Minnesota, so let's keep fighting to implement these policies nation-wide.

And that's the way it is - for the week of March 30, 2015 – I'm Thom Hartmann – on the Economic and Labor News.

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News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Ex-US Official on Bowe Bergdahl Charges: Why Are We Vilifying an Ex-POW Tortured by Taliban? http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29939-ex-us-official-on-bowe-bergdahl-charges-why-are-we-vilifying-an-ex-pow-tortured-by-taliban http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29939-ex-us-official-on-bowe-bergdahl-charges-why-are-we-vilifying-an-ex-pow-tortured-by-taliban

With Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl facing charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the case has revived controversy over how the Obama administration won his release in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay. On Friday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the White House for documents related to the swap. Others have raised different questions over the Bergdahl case, including whether he is being unfairly targeted while the military and political leaders who mishandled the Afghan war evade scrutiny. We speak with Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy in September 2009.

Please check back later for full transcript.

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News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Attorney for Bowe Bergdahl: Army Report Shows Ex-POW Left Base to Report Wrongdoing, Not Desert Unit http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29938-attorney-for-bowe-bergdahl-army-report-shows-ex-pow-left-base-to-report-wrongdoing-not-desert-unit http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29938-attorney-for-bowe-bergdahl-army-report-shows-ex-pow-left-base-to-report-wrongdoing-not-desert-unit

The U.S. Army says it plans to charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and the rare charge of misbehavior before the enemy after he was held and tortured in Taliban captivity for five years when he left his base in Afghanistan in 2009. He was freed in 2014 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held for years at Guantánamo Bay. Now Bergdahl's defense could center on an Army probe that found he walked off his post in an attempt to reach another U.S. base to report on wrongdoing in his unit. An earlier military report found Bergdahl likely walked away on his own free will, but stopped short of finding that he planned to permanently desert U.S. forces. We get the details from his lawyer, Eugene Fidell, a lecturer at Yale Law School and co-founder and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

TRANSCRIPT:

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to developments in the case against Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was held in Taliban captivity for 5 years after leaving his base in Afghanistan in 2009. He was freed last year in exchange for 5 Taliban prisoners who were held for years at Guantánamo. Then, last week, the Army announced plans to charge him with one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, he faces life in prison. Bergdahl's defense against a desertion charge could center on an Army investigation's finding he walked off his post in an attempt to reach another U.S. base to report on wrongdoing in his unit. And that he did not plan to permanently desert.

The investigation has not been released, but CNN cites senior defense officials who say Bergdahl claimed to be concerned about problems with order and discipline at his post in Paktika Province in Afghanistan and also had concerns about, "leadership issues" at his base. The next step in Bergdahl's case is an Article 32 hearing, a procedure similar to a grand jury.

For more we turn to Eugene Fidell, the lawyer for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He joins us from Yale University, where he is the Florence Rogatz Visiting Lecturer in law at Yale Law school. Fidell is a cofounder and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice. Welcome to Democracy Now!. Can you talk about the charges against your client, Bowe Bergdahl?

EUGENE FIDELL: Well, there are two charges, Amy, one, as you mentioned, is a charge of desertion, the other is a very unusual — let me back up. There's a lot of cases of desertion and they are typically handled at a very low level in the military justice system. The other charge is misbehavior before the enemy in that he left and, that is the gist of it. It's simply that he left and it was in a battle zone. At least that is the allegation. Those cases are extremely rare. It's under a statute that is kind of a museum piece that dates back to the very early days of the republic.

There's probably something like it in the Articles of War George III signed in 1774. It's a very, very rare charge and frankly, I have been doing this since 1969, I can't remember a case of an actual prosecution for that charge.

AMY GOODMAN: And, I mean, explain what it means, "misbehavior before the enemy."

EUGENE FIDELL: Well, typically, the charge entails things like dropping your rifle or running away from a battle, this kind of thing. What the Army seems to have done here, is gotten creative and turned it into a sort of catch-all where they can take any other offense, in this case an offense of desertion which they are also charging, and sort of escalate the whole thing into world war III by calling it misbehavior before the enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene Fidell, you wrote in your memo about the army's report on Bowe Bergdahl, "While hedging its bets, the report basically concludes that Sergeant Bergdahl did not intend to remain away from the army permanently, as classic long desertion requires it also concludes that his specific intent was to bring what he thought were disturbing circumstances to the attention of the nearest general officer." Can you explain this?

EUGENE FIDELL: Well, I'm not going to any more detail than the letter I sent in the letter to General Milly, the Commander of U.S. forces command, early in this month. The reason for that is, I think all of this is going to come out, has got to come out. And I want to make one point if you do not mind, Amy, the army has a substantial report for a Major General Kenneth Dahl, who investigated this thing to the hilt. He had something like 22 investigators going around for months and months, talking to everybody, examining all possible documents. The gist of what he said is, you can infer from what i wrote in my letter to General Milley. And frankly, I think it's incumbent on the army to release General Dahl's report.

Obviously, there are some health-related things that are in the report and Privacy Act stuff but, basically, the report ought to be out there so the American public can look at it and not be subject to the kind of rumor mongering that has been going crazy lately.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from Bergdahl's own description of his time held by the Taliban. Quote, "I was kept in constant isolation with little to no understanding of time, through periods of constant darkness, periods of constant light, and periods of completely random flickering of light and absolutely no understanding of anything that was happening beyond the door i was held behind." Bergdahl also wrote that for years he was chained on all fours, or locked in a cage, and that the sores on his wrists and ankles from the shackles grew infected. He said he was malnourished and quote, "my body started a steady decline and constant internal sickness that would last through the final year." How has his five-year imprisonment been described by the military?

EUGENE FIDELL: They haven't really described it. In fact, General Dahl's report, which I referred to before, which the summary of it, Amy, is 57 pages long, single spaced as I recall. The summary spent something like 8 words on his treatment while he was in captivity. So, the Army has not described this in any detail. They are more interested in delving into offenses from the 18th century.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how do you think that should be weighed in what will happen to him, the fact that he was a prisoner of war for five years, where held, where he was tortured, where he largely sick during that time and attempted to escape, Sgt. Bergdahl writes, in his own words, 12 times?

EUGENE FIDELL: Oh, I think that's entitled to very considerable weight in the broad judgement as to how these charges should be disposed of. This is the broadest kind of discretion that the military knows. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to take this kind of experience, prolonged for five years, into account. People in the military are human beings, they are not automatons. And I expect and hope that those who are ultimately going to have to make a decision here as to what should be done — and an article 32 investigation doesn't commit anybody to anything — will take this into account.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a comment from Lieutenant Colonel Michael Waltz, who says he led the search Bowe Bergdahl. This is a clip from his interview on Fox News last week, starting with host Sean Hannity.

SEAN HANNITY: I know we lost at least six soldiers — is six the number — and how many others were injured in the search for him?

LT. COL. MICHAEL WALTZ: The disturbing thing is that the Taliban knew that we were pulling out all the stops to look for him and were feeding false information into our informant network. So, they were baiting us into ambushes. In one case they baited us into a house rigged to explode, thank god it didn't. But, soldiers died looking for him.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Lieutenant Colonel Michael Waltz. But, Eugene Fidell, you've said the Army's report found no evidence that any soldier died searching for Sergeant Bergdahl.

EUGENE FIDELL: Right, well, first, the comment Mr. Waltz, who I believe was a junior officer in Afghanistan, also has on his webpage that he worked for Vice President Cheney, just for background. The Army said in its report what I said in my letter to General Milley. I think it is incumbent on the Army to make the facts known. I also am concerned that something that Mr. Waltz may have said might be classified. I assume somebody will watch this and make a determination on that.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

EUGENE FIDELL: That's about all I want to say on that. I am not going to go any further.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene Fidell, you wrote in your memo that the Army's report recommends that Sgt. Bergdahl be stripped of his status as a missing-captured prisoner of war. You note, "International humanitarian law does not distinguish between personnel who have deserted and personnel who have not." You also cite everyone from Bergdahl's captors to President Obama calling him a prisoner of war. This is Obama announcing Bowe Bergdahl's release last June.

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: We're committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan and we are committed to closing Gitmo. But, we also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. That's who we are as Americans. It's a profound obligation within our military and today, at least in this instance, it's a promise we have been able to keep.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance Eugene Fidell?

EUGENE FIDELL: That quote speaks for itself. Everybody in the picture understood that sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. The International Law of Armed Conflict does not distinguish between prisoners of war who are — or prisoners who are absent without leave versus prisoners who are not absent without leave. The status is precisely the same under international humanitarian law, as it's called. And I think it is preposterous that the Army at this late date might even consider changing his status. After all, he was locked up by the other side in the most horrible conditions. Conditions that none of us would possibly ever want to endure, and he endured them for five years. To his credit, I think, he did what soldiers are supposed to do when they are taken prisoner and attempted to escape. He attempted to escape something like 12 times, starting from the very beginning. The Taliban punished him severely when they caught him again and again.

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News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 11:17:47 -0400
Why Doesn't the Intelligence Community Care Whether Its Security Programs Work? http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29937-why-doesn-t-the-intelligence-community-care-whether-its-security-programs-work http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29937-why-doesn-t-the-intelligence-community-care-whether-its-security-programs-work

The House and Senate Intelligence Committee just passed a cybersecurity bill that critics argue isn't likely to improve cybersecurity. In fact, because it undermines the privacy of electronic communications by encouraging companies to broadly share private data with the government and each other, it may actually damage cybersecurity.

For anyone who follows intelligence policy, this shouldn't be a surprise. The intelligence community all too often launches grand new programs without conducting the appropriate research and evaluations to determine whether they will work, or simply create new harms.

The examples are numerous and it is a problem identified long ago by Clark Kent Ervin, the Department of Homeland Security's first inspector general.

As Ervin suggests, when intelligence agencies fail to evaluate their programs, a network of inspectors general, congressional auditors and outside watchdogs often fill the gap. But even when these oversight mechanisms identify an ineffective and wasteful security program, it's all but impossible to end.

The FBI and National Security Agency had long told Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the bulk collection of all domestic telephony metadata was "vital" to its counterterrorism efforts. But once Edward Snowden leaked the program to journalists, these claims crumbled under public scrutiny. The government now admits it didn't help interdict any terrorist attacks, a conclusion backed by a group of experts the President charged with reviewing it. Yet a bill that would not even have ended the program, but merely narrowed the government's use of the data, failed last year.

Likewise, the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, has since 2010 issued a series of reports that criticize a Transportation Security Agency behavioral detection program that purportedly trained its airport personnel to identify subtle behavioral cues that reveal a passenger's intent to harm an aircraft. Over four years the program sent more than 150,000 passengers to secondary screening, but didn't identify a single threat to aviation. Meanwhile, GAO found that 16 people who were later convicted of terrorism-related crimes traveled through eight airports deploying behavioral detection officers 23 times without being identified. Last year, a follow-up GAO report confirmed the program's continuing failure. Despite its $200 million annual price tag, bills to defund it regularly fail.

GAO has similarly criticized broader "suspicious activity reporting" programs run by the FBI and Director of National Intelligence, or DNI. These take state and local police reports, almost always reflecting innocuous activity rather than behavior that suggests criminal preparations, and feed them into federal databases. The FBI and DNI have so far refused a 2010 GAO request to develop performance metrics to measure the effectiveness of these programs.

There is a strong argument for ending these programs on the basis of their high cost and lack of effectiveness alone. But they actually do damage to our society. TSA agents participating in the behavioral detection program have claimed the program promotes racial profiling, and at least one inspector general report confirmed it. Victims unfairly caught up in the broader suspicious activity reporting programs have sued over the violations of their privacy. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded the telephone metadata program violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and raised serious constitutional concerns.

The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act passed by Senate Intelligence Committee last week is yet another example of this phenomenon. Experts agree that the bill would do little, if anything, to reduce the large data breaches we've seen in recent years, which have been caused by bad cyber security practices rather than a lack of information about threats. If passed by the full Congress, it would further weaken electronic privacy laws and ultimately put our data at greater risk. The bill would add another layer of government surveillance on a U.S. tech industry that is already facing financial losses estimated at $180 billion as a result of the exposure of NSA's aggressive collection programs.

I talked with Babak Pasdar, CEO of Bat Blue Networks and a network security expert , about the impact of the NSA's previous efforts to undermine encryption standards and install backdoors into U.S. tech products and software.

Pasdar explains that from a security standpoint, if the U.S. government can gain access to data, chances are that someone else can too. Just as the weakening of standards governing encryption weakens the integrity of the entire system, our government's weakening the laws governing the sharing of private data will lead to other governments doing the same.

Pasdar warns that the expansion of government surveillance in cyberspace has had a chilling effect on U.S. technology companies, particularly as data is moving to the cloud. "The U.S. has always been the central hub of technology, and we're starting to see a lot of organizations talking about moving their cloud infrastructure, or moving their data into Europe or other countries that don't have such a troubling history with privacy and integrity." 

But Pasdar's greatest concern is the damage to our constitutional system.

Intelligence agencies should be in the habit of evaluating all the possible consequences of an activity undertaken in the name of security before it is implemented. As Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the Intelligence Committee's lone dissenting vote against the bill, argued, "If information-sharing legislation does not include adequate privacy protections then that's not a cybersecurity bill – it's a surveillance bill by another name."

We don't need another surveillance program that doesn't improve our security.

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News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 11:12:24 -0400
Wyden Shows Connection Between Rigged Trade and Rigged Government http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29934-wyden-shows-connection-between-rigged-trade-and-rigged-government http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29934-wyden-shows-connection-between-rigged-trade-and-rigged-government

Participating in US politics, as a citizen activist, puts you face-to-face with corruption and the ugliness of money-politics.

At least I find it ugly that a senator would be negotiating fast track legislation through Congress for secret corporate rigged trade deals while raising money from big business interests that would profit immensely from those deals. Taking money while negotiating legislation that benefits the donor should be illegal. It should be considered bribery or a pay-off, but the deep corruption of US politics has legalized that kind of bribery and made it the norm.

While this was occurring Wikileaks published the text of the Investment Chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This chapter allows corporations to sue governments in a tribunal that supersedes the  US judicial system when a law passed in the public interest would undermine their profits. Corporations can sue for the profits they were expecting to make in rigged trade tribunals where corporate lawyers play the role of judges and there is no right to appeal or take the case to another court for review. Even the US Supreme Court cannot overrule the corporate judges.

A Week With Wyden

That is what we saw this week as we focused our attention on Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). Wyden is the key Democrat on the Finance Committee. If he co-sponsors fast track with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) then it will be harder to stop these crony capitalist rigged agreements. We'll see if the bribes he received on Wednesday from DC's big business lobbyists at his bribe-fest, err fundraiser, was enough for him to ignore what the people of Oregon have said they clearly oppose.

Polling shows that 73 percent of Oregonians oppose fast track and 63 percent oppose the TPP. Half of the voters in Oregon said they would be less likely to support Wyden if he works with Republicans to pass fast track. You would think in a representative democracy the elected official who represents that constituency would say 'no' to fast track rather than negotiate in secret with a Republican leader on how to get fast track through the Congress.

But, Senator Wyden is not listening to what the people of Oregon want. Maybe he has been in Washington, DC too long or maybe he is more comfortable in his $10 million home in New York City. Or, maybe it is just that he gets so much money in donations from big business interests that he represents them instead of the people.

From meeting with Wyden's staff, it is clear that the senator thinks the public is too dumb to vote against him because of this issue. They think trade doesn't matter to voters. But Wyden underestimates voters. In fact, because we now have the NAFTA experience, people understand how trade impacts their lives. And the TPP is much bigger than NAFTA.  We know the results: lost jobs, lower incomes, a bigger wealth divide, higher trade deficits, undermining the environment and increased migration. People now know trade agreements have created terrible consequences for their lives.

We sat-in Wyden's office for a week doing a "toast-in" to make the point that Wyden's career is toast if he co-sponsors fast track. Democratic Party aligned groups are saying they will remove Wyden from office in 2016 if he supports fast track.  The Hill reported how multiple groups are planning to oust him.  It started with Howard Dean's Democracy For America when they saw the poll results showing how out-of-step Wyden is with Oregon voters and they urged a primary challenge. The call was then taken up by the Working Families Party in Oregon. And, just this week MoveOn members in Oregon voted with 79 percent saying they would support a primary challenger against Wyden. MoveOn has 88,000 members in Oregon. The AFL-CIO is withholding PAC contributions, not just to Wyden but to all members of Congress, and is running advertisements in Oregon criticizing fast track.

Balanced against the views of Oregon voters is the money donated to him by big business. As the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, a lot of big business money comes his way and passing fast track for the TPP and other agreements rigged for transnational corporations is a top priority.  Only 3 percent of Wyden's personal contributions come from small donations, the rest come from large donations and PACs.

Open Secrets reports that over the past five years many of Wyden's industry donations come from big business interests who will benefit from the rigged corporate trade agreements that fast track would help to pass. This includes private investment firms ($824,460 in Wyden donations), the insurance industry ($379,950), pharmaceuticals and health products ($356,278), manufacturing and distribution ($203,720), business services  ($165,050), finance ($147,815), oil and gas ($129,414) and chemical and related manufacturing ($101,850).  That is more than $2 million – do those donations speak louder than voters?

This week Congressional Quarterly reported that Senator Wyden was holding a fundraiser at Bistro Bis, an upscale restaurant near Capitol Hill.  The invitation said "Friends of all industries are welcome to attend." The day before the event, we called for a protest outside the event in order to highlight that Wyden was fundraising for industries that would profit from fast track. After our call for a protest, he moved the fundraiser to a still undisclosed location. It was interesting to see how quickly he moved to hide his actions at the big bribe-fest. He's being tight-lipped not only about where it was held but who attended and how much money was raised. What's he hiding?

It is common for politicians who are considering legislation that would benefit an industry or corporate interest to hold a fundraiser while doing so. What better time to stick people up for money than when you are holding the key to future profits? This is so common that it is the norm in Washington, DC. Of course, that does not make it right; indeed what it shows is that the norm in US politics is deep corruption, and Wyden exemplifies it.

TPP Secret Exposed

Wikileaks just published one of the most important secret sections of the TPP.  Senator Wyden has been calling for transparency, but I don't think this level of transparency is what he has in mind. If it was, he would insist the text of the full agreement be made public before fast track is considered. He has not done this because he knows that if members of Congress and the people knew what was in this agreement, fast track would not even be considered; indeed the TPP would never become law. The only way for these rigged corporate trade agreements to become law is secrecy and speed, the latter so there is no time to even read them.

Secrecy is such a high priority that Wikileaks emphasized in its press release:

"The document is classified and supposed to be kept secret for four years after the entry into force of the TPP agreement or, if no agreement is reached, for four years from the close of the negotiations."

Imagine that, secret law multiplied. It is bad enough to negotiate a law in secret and pass it through Congress with no hearings but then to keep the law secret until four years after it becomes law. Imagine that, laws that will impact every aspect of our lives kept this secret.  This sounds like a dystopian science fiction novel. Would anyone think that a country that passed laws with such secrecy was a democracy? A novel about a government like this would not be about a democracy – it would be about a dictatorship of corporations where the people are serfs to corporate power.

Ilana  Solomon, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program,  said: "It is outrageous that we have to continue to rely on leaked texts to expose the details of this trade pact — and that every leak confirms the threats of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to clean air and water."

What does the text show? Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa writes "corporations could sue the U.S. or other countries included in the deal if they didn't like their laws. Such challenges would be handled by an unaccountable international arbitration forum. And taxpayers would end up paying the tab if the private sector wins."

"With the veil of secrecy ripped back, finally everyone can see for themselves that the TPP would give multinational corporations extraordinary new powers that would undermine our sovereignty, expose U.S. taxpayers to billions in new liability and privilege foreign firms operating here with special rights not available to U.S. firms under U.S. law," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America describes the chapter as "worse than we imagined" and says: "These 56 pages must be a wakeup call for our nation.  We must be defenders of democracy first and push aside the special interests of multinational corporations."

Food and Water Watch, which opposes fast track and the TPP because of its threat to food and water, summarized the leak saying it will prevent "commonsense public health, environmental and consumer safeguards" by providing "special rights for corporations at the expense of the public interest, letting foreign companies demand financial compensation"

Under the TPP only foreign corporations can sue governments (domestic corporations do not share in that power), while people have no recourse. If dangerous food is imported and people are poisoned, they cannot sue in the tribunal; if fracking or a burst pipeline destroys the water supply of a community, they cannot sue; if workers lose their jobs to low-paid foreign workers, the workers have no recourse; if websites are forced off the Internet because of violation of extremist copyright provisions, they cannot sue.  On issue after issue, people will be harmed by the provisions of rigged corporate agreements but they will have no recourse, while corporations can sue thereby ensuring increased risks to all of us.

How can Senator Wyden say with a straight face that he supports transparency when he would consider co-sponsoring to fast track bill a secret agreement; a fast track bill that would not even give people enough time to read the multi-thousand page agreement?

The Moment

Now is the key moment to tell Senator Wyden that you oppose fast track. His number in DC is (202) 224-5244. You can find numbers to his six Oregon offices and submit a written comment here.  If you want to take more action visit www.StopFastTrack.com. The people have the power to defeat transnational corporations on these issues but we must take action in order to do so.

Senator Wyden and Senator Hatch hope to finish their negotiations this week and introduce a bill in mid-April. They actually wanted to do so in mid-February but have been stopped. We can stop them again, if we act now. But, no matter what Wyden does, we can defeat fast track. Momentum is on the side of the people, as are the facts.  Fast track is not a done deal. The coalition to stop fast track is the largest ever built to oppose corporate trade. We represent tens of millions of people. We can win.

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Opinion Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Angry at Concessions, Teamsters Unite to Challenge Longtime President Hoffa http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29933-angry-at-concessions-teamsters-unite-to-challenge-longtime-president-hoffa http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29933-angry-at-concessions-teamsters-unite-to-challenge-longtime-president-hoffa

Are the chickens finally coming home to roost for Teamsters brass?

After a wave of anger at concessions the union forced onto unwilling members in its national contracts, some of President James Hoffa's biggest opponents are teaming up to challenge him in the 2016 race.

Running on a slate called Teamsters United, Tim Sylvester and Fred Zuckerman kicked off their campaign March 14-15 with packed rallies in Queens, New York, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

"I feel good about it," says Abel Garcia, a UPS feeder driver and second-generation Teamster in Oxnard, California. "There's a new movement, a fresh breath of air across the country."

Sylvester tops the ticket. He's president of Local 804, based in Queens, which drew national attention for its militancy last year when 250 package car drivers were fired after a wildcat walkout to protest an unjust firing. The local ran a public campaign that got all the firings reversed.

To compete with the coalition's Queens kickoff, the international sponsored an event the same morning, a few blocks away, to thank Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall for supporting the wildcatters—though in truth, Hall didn't do much but claim credit.

Zuckerman is president of Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, the biggest UPS local and a center of resistance to the latest concessionary contract. He ran for vice president last time around on a rival ticket led by International Vice President Fred Gegare, a former Hoffa ally.

Package car driver Joan Elaine Miller traveled up from Philadelphia for the standing-room-only New York rally. "Our current elected officials have sadly—and we have no one but ourselves to blame—run unchecked for 17 years," she said.

"I basically got off my butt and decided to get involved."

Wave of Anger

The opposition slate is backed by the union's longtime reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which has run vigorous challenges every five years but so far hasn't been able to topple Hoffa.

TDU-backed Tom Leedham scored at least 35 percent three elections in a row (1998, 2001, 2006). In 2011 Hoffa's opponents scored 41 percent—split between Gegare and TDU-backed Sandy Pope.

What's different this time: members are angrier, after having giveback contracts shoved down their throats.

"There's no way in the world we should be giving concessions to a company that's making $4 billion in profits annually," Miller says. "What kind of statement is that about our union?"

Under the Teamster constitution, a national contract can only be approved once all its local supplements are ratified. In 2013, rank-and-file UPSers voted to reject 18 of 28 local supplements, covering 63 percent of members—holding up the whole national pact.

Members were angry at the deal's givebacks, especially an increase in out-of-pocket health care costs, and its failure to address the proliferation of part-time work, coerced overtime, technological surveillance, and supervisory harassment.

The union went back to the table and improved the health care a bit—but focused greater energy on pushing members to vote yes. When Teamsters continued to hold out in some locals, international officers simply declared they had the right to impose the contract unilaterally.

Activists like Garcia took heat for having backed the vote-no effort. "I worked with the shop stewards and we put together a Central Coast stewards' steering committee," he said. "From Newbury Park, California, all the way to Paso Robles, we did a no vote twice. Then the contract was imposed on us and I was removed as steward."

Teamsters outside UPS are fed up too. "Morale is terrible here," says Jimi Richards, a road driver for YRC Freight in Atlanta.

Since 2010, members working for YRC Worldwide have endured a 15 percent wage cut and a 75 percent reduction in the company's contribution to their pensions—while executives continue to rake in the stock options and bonuses.

"Members were duped," Richards says. "They lied and threatened, said 'If we don't get this passed, we'll close the doors.' Come to find out they made a profit in the fourth quarter."

Ballot Hurdle

Rank and filers' right to vote for their national officers is now a permanent feature of the Teamster constitution. TDU's advocacy notched that win in a January settlement agreement that replaced the 1989 consent decree as a way to monitor for corruption and enforce member control of the union.

But getting onto the October 2016 ballot won't be easy. The coalition slate's first hurdle is a petition drive this summer. It takes 50,000 Teamster signatures to become an accredited candidate.

Then in early 2016, each local will elect delegates to the June convention, where a candidate must win 5 percent of delegate votes to be nominated.

That threshold is tougher than it sounds. Local officers beholden to top leaders often run unopposed for delegate. When they do face opposition, they have the edge financially and strategically. And at the convention, delegates are pressured to back incumbents.

Even so, to avoid competition, the current administration has been keen to raise the nomination threshold to 10 percent of delegates. The settlement agreement delayed the pain, keeping it at 5 percent through the 2016 and 2021 elections. But after that, delegates may vote to raise the bar.

The impending change ramps up the urgency. "It just makes it all the more important that we win this time around," says Frank Halstead, a Los Angeles grocery warehouse worker and TDU member, "because if we don't take advantage of this opportunity, Hoffa's going to do everything he can to make sure we never have this chance again."

At the Grassroots

"I'm going to try like hell to get these people through," says Garcia. He plans to run for delegate supporting Teamsters United, and also run again this year for principal officer of his local; last time he lost narrowly in a three-way race.

Richards says the Teamsters United campaign's biggest obstacle will be "obviously money, at a time when a lot of us, with the pay cuts that we got, are living paycheck to paycheck."

But challengers will get a boost from at least one improvement to the rules: a week before the 2016 election, each candidate gets a free mailing to members. In the past the cost has deterred TDU-backed candidates from mailing at all, while Hoffa has sent out multiple glossies.

And unlike the incumbents, the opposition has an activist culture. Members meet regionally and keep in touch online so they can mobilize on a dime when issues flare up.

For instance, the Cromnibus spending bill that was pushed through Congress in December contained a sneaky provision allowing cuts to the benefits of retirees in multi-employer pensions. "We found out through AARP and TDU that they were slipping that part in," Richards says.

"We used social media to round everyone up and raise hell. Members were out on their own for six days before the [Teamsters international] came out with a statement… Congress voted it in that night."

For Miller the challenge will be getting her co-workers in motion. "They're all very supportive: 'Yeah, you're right Joan, you're right,'" she says.

"I'm hoping to motivate them. An active union is a healthy union. A busy union is a good union."

 

New book from Labor Notes: How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers tells how activists transformed their union and gave members hope. "A beacon to all rank-and-file members on how to bring democracy to their locals." Buy one today, only $15.

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News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
On Women Who Refused to Live in Silence and Be Consigned to Oblivion http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29932-on-women-who-refused-to-live-in-silence-and-be-consigned-to-oblivion http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29932-on-women-who-refused-to-live-in-silence-and-be-consigned-to-oblivion

Statue of Juana Azurduy de Padilla - Guerrilla fighter for the independence of Bolivia from Spanish rule. (Photo via Shutterstock)Statue of Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a Guerrilla fighter for the independence of Bolivia from Spanish rule. (Photo: Juana Azurduy via Shutterstock)The Shoe
(January 15)

In 1919 Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary, was murdered in Berlin.

Her killers bludgeoned her with rifle blows and tossed her into the waters of a canal.

Along the way, she lost a shoe.

Some hand picked it up, that shoe dropped in the mud.

Rosa longed for a world where justice would not be sacrificed in the name of freedom, nor freedom sacrificed in the name of justice.

Every day, some hand picks up that banner.

Dropped in the mud, like the shoe.

The Celebration That Was Not
(February 17)

The peons on the farms of Argentina's Patagonia went out on strike against stunted wages and overgrown workdays, and the army took charge of restoring order.

Executions are grueling. On this night in 1922, soldiers exhausted from so much killing went to the bordello at the port of San Julián for their well-deserved reward.

But the five women who worked there closed the door in their faces and chased them away, screaming, "You murderers! Murderers, get out of here!"

Osvaldo Bayer recorded their names. They were Consuelo García, Ángela Fortunato, Amalia Rodríguez, María Juliache, and Maud Foster.

The whores. The virtuous.

Sacrilegious Women
(June 9)

In the year 1901, Elisa Sánchez and Marcela Gracia got married in the church of Saint George in the Galician city of A Coruña.

Elisa and Marcela had loved in secret. To make things proper, complete with ceremony, priest, license and photograph, they had to invent a husband. Elisa became Mario: she cut her hair, dressed in men's clothing, and faked a deep voice.

When the story came out, newspapers all over Spain screamed to high heaven -- "this disgusting scandal, this shameless immorality" -- and made use of the lamentable occasion to sell papers hand over fist, while the Church, its trust deceived, denounced the sacrilege to the police.

And the chase began.

Elisa and Marcela fled to Portugal.

In Oporto they were caught and imprisoned.

But they escaped. They changed their names and took to the sea.

In the city of Buenos Aires the trail of the fugitives went cold.

The Right to Bravery
(August 13)

In 1816 the government in Buenos Aires bestowed the rank of lieutenant colonel on Juana Azurduy "in virtue of her manly efforts."

She led the guerrillas who took Cerro Potosí from the Spaniards in the war of independence.

War was men's business and women were not allowed to horn in, yet male officers could not help but admire "the virile courage of this woman."

After many miles on horseback, when the war had already killed her husband and five of her six children, Juana also lost her life. She died in poverty, poor even among the poor, and was buried in a common grave.

Nearly two centuries later, the Argentine government, now led by a woman, promoted her to the rank of general, "in homage to her womanly bravery."

Mexico's Women Liberators
(September 17)

The centenary celebrations were over and all that glowing garbage was swept away.

And the revolution began.

History remembers the revolutionary leaders Zapata, Villa, and other he-men. The women, who lived in silence, went on to oblivion.

A few women warriors refused to be erased:

Juana Ramona, "la Tigresa," who took several cities by assault;

Carmen Vélez, "la Generala," who commanded three hundred men;

Ángela Jiménez, master dynamiter, who called herself Angel Jiménez;

Encarnación Mares, who cut her braids and reached the rank of second lieutenant hiding under the brim of her big sombrero, "so they won't see my woman's eyes";

Amelia Robles, who had to become Amelio and who reached the rank of colonel;

Petra Ruiz, who became Pedro and did more shooting than anyone else to force open the gates of Mexico City;

Rosa Bobadilla, a woman who refused to be a man and in her own name fought more than a hundred battles;

and María Quinteras, who made a pact with the Devil and lost not a single battle. Men obeyed her orders. Among them, her husband.

The Mother of Female Journalists
(November 14)

On this morning in 1889, Nellie Bly set off.

Jules Verne did not believe that this pretty little woman could circle the globe by herself in less than eighty days.

But Nellie put her arms around the world in seventy-two, all the while publishing article after article about what she heard and observed.

This was not the young reporter's first exploit, nor would it be the last.

To write about Mexico, she became so Mexican that the startled government of Mexico deported her.

To write about factories, she worked the assembly line.

To write about prisons, she got herself arrested for robbery.

To write about mental asylums, she feigned insanity so well that the doctors declared her certifiable. Then she went on to denounce the psychiatric treatments she endured, as reason enough for anyone to go crazy.

In Pittsburgh when Nellie was twenty, journalism was a man's thing.

That was when she committed the insolence of publishing her first articles.

Thirty years later, she published her last, dodging bullets on the front lines of World War I.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women
(November 25)

In the jungle of the Upper Paraná, the prettiest butterflies survive by exhibiting themselves. They display their black wings enlivened by red or yellow spots, and they flit from flower to flower without the least worry. After thousands upon thousands of years, their enemies have learned that these butterflies are poisonous. Spiders, wasps, lizards, flies, and bats admire them from a prudent distance.

On this day in 1960 three activists against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic were beaten and thrown off a cliff. They were the Mirabal sisters. They were the prettiest, and they were called Las Mariposas, "The Butterflies."

In memory of them, in memory of their inedible beauty, today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In other words, for the elimination of violence by the little Trujillos that rule in so many homes.

The Art of Living
(December 9)

In 1986 the Nobel Prize for medicine went to Rita Levi-Montalcini.

In troubled times, during the dictatorship of Mussolini, Rita had secretly studied nerve fibers in a makeshift lab hidden in her home.

Years later, after a great deal of work, this tenacious detective of the mysteries of life discovered the protein that multiplies human cells, which won her the Nobel.

She was about eighty by then and she said, "My body is getting wrinkled, but not my brain. When I can no longer think, all I'll want is help to die with dignity."

These passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano's book Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, just out in paperback from Nation Books.

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Opinion Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Elizabeth Warren Strikes Back as Citigroup Tries to Blackmail the Democratic Party http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29931-elizabeth-warren-strikes-back-as-citigroup-tries-to-blackmail-the-democratic-party http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29931-elizabeth-warren-strikes-back-as-citigroup-tries-to-blackmail-the-democratic-party

An unusual move by a thin-skinned, too-big-to-fail bank, Citigroup, to slap down the finance-skeptic faction of the Democratic party appears to be backfiring.

Reuters reported on Friday that Citigroup was making clear its displeasure with the way Elizabeth Warren had been calling out its overly-cozy relationship with the Administration by threatening to withhold its customary bribe, um, donation to the Democratic party:

Big Wall Street banks are so upset with U.S. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for them to be broken up that some have discussed withholding campaign donations to Senate Democrats in symbolic protest, sources familiar with the discussions said.

Representatives from Citigroup, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, have met to discuss ways to urge Democrats, including Warren and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, to soften their party’s tone toward Wall Street, sources familiar with the discussions said this week.

The story noted that the amount at issue was only $15,000 per bank, so this scheme is more a warning shot that a serious move, particularly since it is aimed at the Senate, and thus pointedly steers clear of the Big Finance stalwarts, the Clintons. But if you widen the frame a bit, there is more at stake here than you might think. Warren has declared war on the Wall Street wing of the Democratic party, including the powerful network of proteges and fundraisers affiliated with former Treasury secretary, former Goldman partner, and more recently, vice chairman of Citigroup Bob Rubin. One politically-savvy financial analyst calls this cadre “the Rubino crime syndicate”.

Warren fingered Citigroup’s extensive connections to the Executive branch when she fought the addition of a rider to a must-pass spending bill that would eliminate a Dodd Frank provisions to force banks to stop trading certain derivatives in taxpayer-backstopped entities (the so-called swaps pushout rule). As you’ll see below, not only did Warren have the bad taste to point out that the current Treasury secretary is a Citigroup alum, and that Sandy Weill, Citigroup chairman, had offered Timothy Geithner the opportunity to run the bank, she also said that Dodd Frank had come up short by not forcing Citigroup’s breakup. If you’ve not seen this speech, you need to watch it. You’ll understand why Citigroup is desperate to find a way to leash and collar Warren.

Even though Warren lost the swaps pushout rule battle, the ferocity of the fight, the attention it garnered, and her and her allies’ relentless focus on the bank tactic of using arcane-seeming provisions to shift risk onto the public, as well as their deep political connections, threw a wrench in the financiers’ plans. They’d hoped to roll what little post-crisis reform that took place by going after technical-seeming provisions that they assumed the dumb chump voter would never notice. Instead, Warren turned the tables by using the effort to inflict considerable public relations damage.

As much as the Warren attack might not seem like much of a victory, it’s important to understand what she and the other bank opponents are achieving. The banks count on the public not understanding and not caring about the more arcane aspects of finance, and furthermore assuming that bank reform is settled. On the political front, the power of the financiers doesn’t lie simply with their lavish campaign donations; it also lies in the perception that opposing them is a political death sentence.

And that is why Warren has become so dangerous to them. Remember that Obama brought her in to start up the CFPB in a classic “keep your enemies close” strategy. It’s a near certainty that they hoped to destroy her politically because she, as a Harvard academic with limited administrative experience, would flail about and fail in executing such a mammoth task. So they were stuck with her when she succeeded and was the obvious candidate to run the new agency. The Administration cast about for months trying to extricate itself from the mess it created, finally nominating Richard Cordray, a Warren hire at the CFPB, and enticing her with the bright shiny toy of a Senate seat.

The Administration (remember that Obama is still very much the party leader) again got too clever by half. It decided to exploit Warren as a major fundraiser. But that gave her an independent power base. And given the carnage in the Congressional midterms, the wisdom of following Democratic party dictates isn’t looking too hot for individual Congresscritters, unless they hail from conservative districts. The public is waking up to the party’s limousine liberalism, and voters who care about economic fairness are increasingly staying home on election days.

So given Warren’s ability to raise money on her own, the idea of getting the Democratic party to rein her in is sorely misguided. The real target would seem to be the other bank opponents, like Sherrod Brown and Jeff Merkley, and any other Senators or Representatives who might dare to oppose rule by Big Finance.

Warren struck back fast and hard, getting the attention of Bloomberg:

In a fundraising request (titled “Wall Street isn’t happy with us,”) Warren accused the banks of wanting Washington to puts its needs before Americans and “get a little public fanny-kissing for their money too.” The pitch argues that 2016 Democratic Senate candidates could lose $30,000 each, and asks for for help raising matching funds.

“The big banks have issued a threat, and it’s up to us to fight back,” Warren wrote.

If Citigroup, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America wanted to give Warren—a skilled fundraiser—a chance to bolster her image as an anti-Wall Street progressive hero and raise a few thousands, they succeeded. What this won’t do is make it easier for Democrats to soften their tone toward Wall Street.

Cynics may say that these are just range wars, and that Warren is a progressive hood ornament for the Democratic party. While we’ve criticized her for her timid student loan proposal and for her falling in line with US adventurism abroad (save the proposed intervention in Syria, where Congress refused to back Obama), Warren is nevertheless is achieving something significant. Despite what Simon Johnson called a “quiet coup” by the banks, Warren is demonstrating that the major financial firms can be defeated. The perception that they are vulnerable is critical to building an effective opposition; one of the easiest ways to discourage dissent is to say, “Why bother? You’ll never win.” But Warren, to the chagrin of the Administration, made such a stink over the nomination of Lazard M&A star Antonio Weiss that he withdrew. We know of other one other pro-bank move the Administration planned to take where Warren and two Senate allies told them they’d have a fight if they went ahead. The Administration sat pat as a result.

So while these fights individually may not seem consequential, recognize that cumulatively, the banks are finding they are incurring more costs in trying to get their way, and are even sometimes getting their noses bloodied. While this is still a long way from seeing big bank executives prosecuted, the diminishment of bank power isn’t going to happen overnight, but through steady, persistent pressure on their many vulnerable points. If nothing else, it’s great sport watching big banks score own goals when trying to beat back Warren.

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Opinion Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Oceans in Crisis: One Woman Will Cross the Pacific to Raise Awareness http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29930-oceans-in-crisis-one-woman-will-cross-the-pacific-to-raise-awareness http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29930-oceans-in-crisis-one-woman-will-cross-the-pacific-to-raise-awareness

(Photo: Sonya Baumstein)(Photo: Sonya Baumstein)

Sonya Baumstein aims to be the first woman to row across the Pacific Ocean, and in doing so, hopes to raise awareness of the crisis the oceans are in due to human-caused climate disruption.

(Photo: Sonya Baumstein)(Photo: Sonya Baumstein)

Sonya Baumstein has rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, kayaked from Seattle to Juneau, and paddled across the Bering Strait.

But now she is in final preparations to become, at 29 years old, the first woman to row across the Pacific Ocean. From Choshi, Japan, to San Francisco, her route will carry her over 5,700 nautical miles of what is arguably the most challenging open ocean crossing in the world, one that will include winds in excess of 50 knots, over 40-foot-high seas, and the threat of freighters and other large vessels.

To see more stories like this, visit "Planet or Profit?"

She will take on the 150-plus day voyage solo, in her 23-foot rowboat, supported only by a small land-based group of advisers via satellite phone.

"This is all aimed towards shining the light on climate change."

Truthout caught up with Baumstein in Port Townsend, Washington, where she was finishing construction on her boat and making final arrangements. In April, she will fly to Japan to begin her trans-Pacific row.

"This is all aimed towards shining the light on climate change," Baumstein said. "Humans are doing so much to exacerbate it, and we don't even know all of the ramifications of our actions."

The oceans cover 71 percent of the planet and contain 97 percent of all the water on earth. They are where the planet's weather systems are formed, and they are absorbing astronomical amounts of carbon dioxide and human-generated plastic and garbage.

Baumstein hopes her journey will bring people's attention to these crucial impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.

"The oceans are full of data," Baumstein said. "They have all this data that we could use to unlock some of the keys to climate change."

And she's willing to put her life on the line to do so.

Oceans of Pollution

While on her voyage rowing across the Atlantic with three colleagues, Baumstein was shocked by what she saw.

"When we hit the Sargasso Sea, inside of these massive seaweed floats, is trash," she said. "We are 500 miles out from shore, and we are seeing miles of garbage, this biosphere full of rubber boots and toilet seats, and I thought there must be something I can do to tell people about this, to show them what the effect of this is on their daily lives."

(Photo: Expedition Pacific)(Photo: Expedition Pacific)

Baumstein paddled through these floating trash piles for two days, stunned by what she saw, which was unfortunately just the tip of an iceberg of which we haven't yet found the end.

The amount of plastic pollution in the oceans has risen alarmingly over the last 40 years, and continues to escalate.

However, if what Baumstein saw in the Atlantic shook her, she must brace herself for what she's going to see in the Pacific.

The amount of plastic floating in the Pacific Gyre - a massive swirling vortex of rubbish - has increased 100-fold in the past four decades.

One warning of humanity's increasingly deleterious impact on the oceans came from prominent marine biologist Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In a 2008 article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jackson warned that, without profound and prompt changes in human behavior, we will cause a "mass extinction in the oceans with unknown ecological and evolutionary consequences."

We are inextricably tied to the oceans in ways we often don't consider. As science journalist Alanna Mitchell has written: "Every tear you cry ... ends up back in the ocean system. Every third molecule of carbon dioxide you exhale is absorbed into the ocean. Every second breath you take comes from the oxygen produced by plankton."

Recent years have found scientists investigating the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

"Probably every sea turtle on the planet interacts with plastic at some point in its life."

The eastern section of the spiraling mass, between Hawaii and California, is estimated to be around twice the size of Texas (some estimates peg the entire mass at twice the size of the continental United States), and is having ecosystem-wide impacts, according to a recent study published in Biology Letters.

Miriam Goldstein, a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and the lead author of the study, told Truthout that by adding this amount of plastic to the oceans, humans could be causing large-scale change to the ocean's ecological system.

"We found eggs on the pieces of plastic, and these were sea skater [insect] eggs," Goldstein said. "Sea skaters naturally occur in the gyre and are known to lay their eggs on floating objects. So we found that the amount of eggs being laid had increased with the amount of plastic."

Goldstein says that, although the study's findings clearly raise immediate concerns, the most serious consequences may be ones we can't yet foresee. "Our work shows there could be potential effects to the ocean ecosystem that we can't expect or predict," she said. "There are five subtropical gyres, one in each ocean basin, and they are natural currents. They are vast areas of the oceans; together they comprise the majority of the area of the oceans. So altering them on a large scale could have unexpected results on all kinds of things."

The study shows how an increase in pollution, in this case an immense amount of plastic, may have dire consequences for animals across the entire marine food web.

This Scripps study follows a report by colleagues at the institution that showed that 9 percent of the fish collected during the trip to study the gyre had plastic waste in their stomachs.

Published in Marine Ecology Progress Series, that study estimated that fish at intermediate ocean depths in the North Pacific Ocean could be ingesting plastic at the staggering rate of 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year.

"From a climate change/fisheries/pollution/habitat destruction point of view, our nightmare is here."

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, told Truthout he finds plastic on every beach he visits across the globe, and added, "Probably every sea turtle on the planet interacts with plastic at some point in its life."

Jo Royle, a UK-based trans-ocean skipper and ocean advocate, has seen the same.

"For 13 years I've been crossing oceans," she told Truthout. "I've seen plastic on the coastline of Antarctica, and over the years we've noticed plastic becoming more of an issue on remote islands. Over the last seven years we've seen it increase dramatically. I can't remember the last time I've been on a beach and not seen plastic."

Biological oceanographer Dr. Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez, with the National Oceanography Centre at Britain's University of Southampton, is concerned that ocean pollution isn't viewed as a pressing issue - despite the fact that it is accelerating.

"Marine pollution is a big issue," she told Truthout. "There is this idea that oceans have unlimited inertia, but nanoparticles of plastic getting into marine animals and the food chain are affecting fish fertility rates, and this affects food security and coastal populations. Pollution is having a huge impact on the oceans, and is urgent and needs to be dealt with."

Nichols concurs, adding that, when it comes to the oceans, we are now seeing the cautionary predictions of previous decades coming true.

"From a climate change/fisheries/pollution/habitat destruction point of view, our nightmare is here; it's the world we live in," Nichols said. "You see evidence of the impact of climate change on the oceans everywhere now. The collapsing fisheries, the changes in the Arctic and the hardship communities that live there are having to face, the frequency and intensity of storms - everything we imagined 30 to 40 years ago when the environmental movement was born, we're dealing with those now.... The toxins in our bodies, food web, and in the marine mammals, it's all there."

How Many More Fish in the Sea?

Baumstein has also seen evidence of the dramatic decline in the world's fisheries.

"Doing the Inside Passage I became much more aware of [the impacts of] climate change," she explained. "The seiner fleet in Canada - for the salmon season, it's gone from 350 boats down to 28. Without even bringing up climate change, it was the topic of conversation. They talked about how important sustainability is, and they get that this is not a resource that can be extended much further. They discussed how the fish are even changing in how they taste."

Worldwide, 90 percent of large predatory fish stocks are now gone due to overfishing, not including the impacts of climate disruption. Given that seafood is the primary source of protein for more than 1 billion of the planet's population, this is a worrisome statistic.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 85 percent of fish stocks are "overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion."

Dr. Maria Salta, a biological oceanographer at the University of Southampton, gave Truthout a bleak prognosis for the oceans and the species that inhabit them. "It is clear that if we continue like this, in a few years time there is not going to be much left," she said, referring to the rampant overfishing going on across the globe, along with the overall treatment of oceans at the hands of humans. "We are losing species every day without ever knowing about them. Sometimes humans can be like a plague to the environment."

Salta's statement might be shocking to some, but there is ample scientific evidence to back it. Overfishing is simply a matter of taking wildlife from the sea at rates that are too high for the fished species to replace themselves. Atlantic cod and herring, along with California's sardines, were overfished to the brink of extinction by the 1950s, and by the late 20th century, instances of isolated depletions (depletions occurring in specific areas) had become both global and catastrophic.

"Thirty percent of marine catch is thrown overboard dead."

Fisheries for the most sought-after species have since collapsed. Boris Worm and Ransom Myers, both scientists with Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, published a shocking paper in the journal Nature in 2003, explaining that the populations of all large predator fish in the oceans have declined by 90 percent in the 50 years since modern industrial fishing became widespread.

Three years later the same scientists, along with colleagues from across the world, published an even more startling paper that predicted a total collapse of all fish that are currently caught commercially by 2048.

Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, along with others, has calculated that the world's total fish catch peaked in the mid-1980s and has been in decline every since.

Dr. Simon Boxall, also with the University of Southampton, has been an oceanographer for more than 30 years. He sees the three largest threats to the oceans as climate change, plastic and overfishing.

"But the big problem is that we are overfishing," Boxall told Truthout.

A key example of this rapid depletion: sharks. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed about a third of all open-ocean shark species as currently threatened with extinction because of overfishing.

"The oceanic white-tip shark populations declined by 99 percent from 1950 to 1999, making it now an endangered species," Salta said. "Also, when sharks are removed from the environment you change the balance of the ecosystem and how it functions."

An issue that works in tandem with overfishing is bycatch, which is sea life that is caught along with the fish being sought commercially. Salta thinks bycatch could be one of the most worrying problems facing the oceans, and goes as far as saying that bycatch is "a mode of mass marine extinction."

"If organisms drop out of the food chain, the entire ecosystem is impacted."

"From 1994 onwards, 27 million tons of bycatch are discarded every year," she said. "Thirty percent of marine catch is thrown overboard dead. For shrimpers, 80 percent of everything caught is bycatch and thrown back for dead."

According to the Pew Environmental report "Protecting Life in the Sea," nearly one-third of the world supply of commercially caught fish has already collapsed.

Salta explained how many of the problems besetting the oceans converge to create a cascading, devastating effect on sea life.

"If organisms drop out of the food chain, the entire ecosystem is impacted," she said. "And temperature affects biodiversity and fish stock. Changes in this variable can impact the entire ecosystem and impact fish stocks."

She cites copepods (tiny crustaceans) in the North Sea as an example. "There was a specific species that hatched in the spring, that was for cod, but during the 1990s because of temperature change, these were replaced with a warmer weather copepod and these hatched too late," she said. "So the cod have vanished there, coupled with exploitation by man."

Salta said that 25 percent of the planet's biodiversity is in danger of extinction within the next 30 years due to commercial fishing.

"When fish become overfished, the human response is to fish down the species to smaller species, so this shifts the target group down, and this affects biodiversity and the ocean ecology," she explained.

Another aspect of overfishing is trawling - a fishing method that involves pulling fishing net through the water behind a boat. Bottom trawling, when the net literally drags across the seafloor, has severely destructive impacts.

"It's the equivalent of forest clear-cutting, but in the ocean, because when they [fishermen] trawl the entire bottom, whatever is there is removed from the environment and changes the entire ecosystem," Salta said. "Biomass of the deep sea is in sharp decline because of trawling."

Bleak Scenario

Beyond marine life, the ocean's critically important role in climate disruption cannot be overstated.

Scientists estimate there are approximately 3,000 gigatons (one gigaton is 1 billion tons) of carbon in the atmosphere. The oceans hold around 38,000 gigatons of carbon, which is 16 times as much carbon as the terrestrial biosphere (all plant and underlying soils on the planet), and 60 times as much as the pre-industrial atmosphere held.

Since the ocean is the greatest of all the carbon reservoirs, it fundamentally determines the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Additional atmospheric carbon produced by the burning of fossil fuels gets absorbed by an already overburdened ocean.

The Zoological Society of London reported in July 2009 that "360 [carbon dioxide atmospheric parts per million] is now known to be the level at which coral reefs cease to be viable in the long run."

In September 2009, Nature magazine stated that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels above 350 parts per million "threaten the ecological life-support systems" of the planet and "challenge the viability of contemporary human societies."

We are now at 400 parts per million. Even by 2009, we were already well over 350 parts per million.

Carbon emissions have already risen "far above even the bleak scenarios."

In its October 2009 issue, the journal Science offered new evidence of what the earth was like 20 million years ago, which was the last time we had carbon levels this high. At that time, sea levels rose over 30 meters and temperatures were as much as 18 degrees Celsius higher than they are today.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, carbon emissions have already risen "far above even the bleak scenarios."

Oceans absorb 26 percent (2.3 billion metric tons) of the carbon human activities release into the atmosphere annually, according to a 2010 study published by Nature Geoscience and The Global Carbon Project.

Unfortunately, global carbon emissions are continuing to increase. At a 2008 academic conference, Exeter University scientist Kevin Anderson showed slides and graphs "representing the fumes that belch from chimneys, exhausts and jet engines, that should have bent in a rapid curve towards the ground, were heading for the ceiling instead." He references the famous "hockey stick graph," that has become so well-known with climate disruption trends now, where charts abruptly tend nearly straight up, rather than showing more linear, gradual increases.

Anderson concluded it was "improbable" that we would be able to stop carbon dioxide emissions from rising to 650 parts per million, even if rich countries adopted "draconian emissions reductions within a decade."

That number, should it come to pass, would mean that global average temperatures would increase five times as much as previous models predicted.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a study in 2009 showing that a new understanding of ocean physics proved that "changes in surface temperature, rainfall and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped."

Part of a Solution

Myriad other problems beset the oceans: increasing acidification, dead zones, fish migrating to different areas because of temperature changes, loss of phytoplankton and bleaching coral.

It seems overwhelming, yet the enormity of the problem is precisely what is driving Baumstein.

(Photo: Expedition Pacific)(Photo: Expedition Pacific)

"I've been preparing for an expedition like this for years now, and I have a great team supporting me," she said. "And this journey gives me the ability to be an active citizen/scientist, a chance to connect the proverbial dots for people, via electronic resources, to show people we can all do this since this information is around us in our daily lives as well."

Baumstein will be collecting data as she rows, as her carbon-fiber boat will be equipped with solar power, a satellite phone and numerous scientific data collection devices.

"I have the opportunity to provide scientists with something they've never had, from changing salinity, to changing water temperature, to a better understanding of El Niño and disappearing snow on land," she said. "All these things are connected."

Baumstein said her boat is "basically a human-powered wave glider" that will carry a device she called the CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth), which measures these metrics and sends the data via her boat's GPS tower to a satellite.

"This will generate a data flow of the currents, wind, and how stirred up the water layers are," she said. "The salinity is important because it drives current and temperature. And you have pools of freshwater they are trying to understand, and they've never been able to collect data in the first foot of water, consistently."

The data Baumstein collects will be sent to the Seattle-based company Earth and Space Research, which is the principal scientific investigator for NASA's Aquarius project, which is a space agency satellite that monitors the world's oceans.

"So I'm providing the grounding data," she said. "And all the NOAA data the public sees comes from the Aquarius satellite."

All of the data is to be open source, so the public can view it online, as well as watch Baumstein's progress across the Pacific.

She aims to shove off from Japan in May, and is bringing 150 days of primary food supplies and 30 days of "backup" rations.

Sonya Baumstein with her boat in Port Townsend, Washington. (Photo: Dahr Jamail)Sonya Baumstein with her boat in Port Townsend, Washington. (Photo: Dahr Jamail)

Baumstein understands she will not be doing a lot of sleeping along the way.

"Sleeping patterns are dependent on weather, so if I have good weather, I'm going to row more," she explained. "I'll wake up every hour when I sleep to look at water temperature, so I have to monitor the currents, which are changing constantly."

She will begin in the Kuroshio current, which is one of the fastest and thinnest in the world, and shifts between 50 to 100 miles on any given day.

"I have to stay in that current because it's the only way folks can get across the ocean," she said. "So there's a lot of seamanship that goes into this."

Baumstein is banking on her knowledge, experience and drive to get her across the largest ocean on the planet. And with a little luck, her voyage will be successful, as will her endeavor to bring more public attention to the plight of the oceans she rows across.

"This is the only planet we have," she said. "So why not learn more about it while trying to take care of it?"

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News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 11:22:46 -0400