Truthout Stories Tue, 21 Apr 2015 21:49:37 -0400 en-gb It's Time to Invest in the United States' Rail System

The Amtrak Silver Star line runs from New York City to Miami and takes 31 hours - long enough to fly back and forth between the two cities five times.The Amtrak Silver Star line runs from New York City to Miami and takes 31 hours - long enough to fly back and forth between the two cities five times. (Photo: Patrick Rasenberg/Flickr)

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It's time to make infrastructure sexy again, and we can start by fixing the United States' rail systems.

Believe it or not, there was a time in the US when riding a train was luxurious. There were classy dining cars, moonlit rides across the countryside and you could even get lucky in a sleeping car.

Those days are long gone.

Today, despite the fact that Amtrak ridership has increased by 50 percent in the last 15 years and continues to increase along the Northeast Corridor, train travel is anything but sexy.

That's because our nation's rail systems are relics of another time.

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

As of 2012, the average age of an Amtrak rail car was 28 years old. And the tracks those rail cars travel on are straight out of the 1800s.

But US trains aren't just really old; they're really slow, too.

Take Amtrak's Silver Star line for example.

The Silver Star runs from New York City to Miami and the whole trip takes a staggering 31 hours.

To put that in perspective, in that same amount of time, you could fly from New York City to Miami and back 5 times. You could make a couple round-trips from New York to London too.

Meanwhile, the Acela train, which was supposed to be the United States' answer to high-speed rail, travels at an average speed of just 68 miles per hour between Boston and Washington. That doesn't sound like high-speed to me.

In comparison, a train traveling a comparable route between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, travels at over 150 miles per hour.

Japan has had high-speed "bullet trains" in place for years which run on-time nearly 100 percent of the time and criss-cross that country at speeds up to 300 miles per hour - in fact, one of their passenger trains just broke the world speed record for a train - at 366 miles per hour, loaded with passengers!

The French TGV and German ICE high-speed trains travel at similar speeds too.

The fact is that rail travel in the US - the richest country in the world - lags behind many developed and developing nations across the globe.

So, why do Amtrak and the rest of the United States' rail systems fall flat compared to those across the globe?

Well, it's simple: money.

This year alone, China is spending $128 billion on rail projects, while countries across Europe are making huge investments in their rail systems.

Unfortunately, Republicans in Washington don't like to spend money on Amtrak and other rail systems because they don't think the government should be running them in the first place. Instead, they want them privatized so for-profit corporations can run them and then take some of those profits to kick back to the Republican legislators as campaign donations.

In fact, Republicans are so opposed to the government funding rail in the US that many Republicans gave back federal dollars that were given to their states to build high-speed rail systems.

Back in 2009, President Obama gave over $8 billion to the states to pursue high-speed rail projects.

But Republican governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio returned that money, deciding that playing politics was more important than updating US infrastructure while giving a huge boost to local economies.

Meanwhile, much like the Public Broadcasting System and the US Postal Service - other government-backed programs that Republicans love to hate - Amtrak has faced repeated funding cuts.

Last month, the House of Representatives reached a deal to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a paltry rate of just $1.4 billion per year. Basically, lawmakers forked over just enough to keep Amtrak running in its current less-than-desirable state.

But that's pretty good considering that Republican presidents and presidential candidates from Reagan to Romney have threatened to give Amtrak the axe altogether.

It's time for Republicans to wake up and realize what much of the world already knows: rail is one of the most efficient forms of mass transportation.

That's something that freight train company CSX brilliantly pointed out in a recent ad.

Not only is rail an environmentally friendly form of transportation, it also helps to provide a boost to local economies and businesses.

Plus, high-speed rail projects across the US could create thousands of new, well-paying jobs.

Ever since Reagan came to Washington, we've been shooting ourselves in the foot by not funding public infrastructure projects. It's time for that to change.

With more Americans riding rail than ever before, we need to update our national rail infrastructure, make major updates in high density corridors like the Northeast Corridor and make real high-speed rail a reality across the US.

Then riding a train in the US will be sexy again.

Opinion Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Where Are All the Victims of Obamacare?

Protesters outside the Supreme Court in March. The court is weighing a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act. (Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)Protesters outside the Supreme Court in March. The court is weighing a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)

One of the odder subplots of the health reform saga in the United States has been the almost pathetic efforts of Republicans to come up with horror stories related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

You might think that given the complexity of the law and the almost unlimited resources of the propaganda machine, they'd be able to come up with someone to serve as the poster child for the law's terrible effects on innocent Americans.

But as far as I know, we have yet to see a single credible example - all the characters featured in Koch brothers ads or in GOP speeches have turned out to be potential beneficiaries of the law, if only they were willing to look at their actual options.

So Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington State, recently went on Facebook to ask for Obamacare horror stories - and instead got an avalanche of testimonials from people who received essential insurance and care thanks to the ACA.

Why can't the GOP find the horror stories it knows - just knows - are out there? Matthew Yglesias at Vox gets at most of it by noting that Obamacare does, in fact, redistribute from the few to the many: "[O]ne of the main things it does is raise taxes rather dramatically on a pretty small number of high-income people in order to give subsidized health insurance policies to a substantially larger number of low-income people," he wrote on March 26. "Indeed, this is one of the main things Republicans don't like about it!"

But there's a bit more to the story. Millionaires paying higher taxes aren't the only people hurt, at least slightly, by the law.

If you are a young, healthy person (and especially if you're male), living in a state that didn't have community rating pre-Obamacare, you may have had a cheap policy that went up in price once the law went into effect; and if you're affluent as well, you don't receive subsidies to purchase insurance. So there are victims out there.

The problem for Republicans is that these people are the wrong kind of victims. What Republicans want are struggling, salt-of-the-earth Americans, preferably older and with expensive medical conditions - not healthy, well-paid guys in their 20s.

But the profile of the ideal Obamacare victim matches, pretty much exactly, the profile of the kind of person Obamacare was designed to help.

And the inability of the GOP to come up with true horror stories is, in its own way, a demonstration that the law is working as intended.

Opinion Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Massive Oil Spills, Exploding Bomb Trains, Hazardous Chemicals, Poisoned Water - What's the Plan?

It's been 21 years since the EPA considered the rules that govern oil spill response. In that time, our technologies have advanced significantly, while the rules surrounding them remained unchanged. Dangerous dispersants, unconventional oil and gas and risky transportation methods have created perilous, sometimes deadly, situations.

Now is our opportunity to create meaningful change. Riki Ott, PhD, discusses the ten key points of the proposed revisions to the National Contingency Plan for Oil Spills, and encourages us to take action by submitting public comments to the EPA by April 22, 2015.

News Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Koch Brothers Declare: "Scott Walker Is Our Man"

Has Scott Walker won the Koch primary?

Charles and David Koch, the billionaire co-owners of Koch Industries, one of the largest privately-held companies in the world and the overseers of one of the biggest private political organizations in the country, told Republican donors in New York on April 19 that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is their man for President.

"We will support whoever the candidate is," David Koch said, "but it should be Scott Walker," according to an account in the New York Times.

Koch, whose political network plans to spend an astonishing $1 billion in the 2016 presidential elections, said "Scott Walker is terrific and I really wish him all the best. He’s a tremendous candidate to be the nominee in my opinion" (although he later said "I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate for president at this point in time.")

The Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has been covering Walker - and his Koch backing - since 2011. CMD has identified at least $11.6 million in support for Walker from the Kochs and their affiliated groups, plus millions more in indirect funding.

CMD Executive Director Lisa Graves was spot-on back in February of 2011, when she reported that "Scott Walker Runs on Koch Money." KochPAC maxed-out on donations to Walker during his 2010 gubernatorial run, giving up to the $43,000 limit, and David Koch donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association that year, which spent $5 million on the Walker race.

In his first months after taking office, Walker--a star alumnus of the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - signed 19 ALEC bills into law‬, which went after unions, enacted voter ID restrictions, and made it harder to hold corporations accountable in the courts. In many ways, the new pat-on-the-back by two of the biggest money men in the game is an astonishing affirmation of deep ties forged years ago at ALEC.

Walker's extreme ideological agenda prompted one million people in the state to sign petitions to recall him from office, and it was the Kochs who came to his rescue.

During the 2012 recall elections, David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity spent $10 million supporting Walker, which included at least 70 paid staffers flown into Wisconsin, plus bus tours, rallies, townhall meetings, phone banks, and canvassers, not to mention the months of TV ads.

But the kicker came in the final weeks before the recall elections. A mysterious group called "Coalition for American Values" poured $400,000 into a barrage of last-minute ads that made a unique appeal: instead of promoting Governor Scott Walker or attacking his opponent, the ads attacked the premise of the recall itself. Over pastoral images of Wisconsinites with fishing poles and tractors, viewers were told that "recall is not the Wisconsin way," and to "stop the recall madness" by voting to reelect Walker.

Despite the ads purporting to represent Wisconsin values, funding for the message came from well outside the Dairy State's borders. CMD discovered that all of Coalition for American Values' known contributions came the Koch-tied Freedom Partners.

And, the ads proved effective. Exit polls on June 5, 2012 showed that sixty percent of voters thought recalls were only appropriate for cases of official misconduct -- a complete reversal from polls conducted in November 2011, just as the recall was launched, when fifty-eight percent of voters supported Walker's recall.

“We're helping him, as we should. We've gotten pretty good at this over the years," David Koch told the Palm Beach Post in early 2012. "We've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more . . . What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important. He's an impressive guy and he's very courageous."

The same year as Walker's recall, David Koch gave $2 million to the Republican Governors Association, and Koch Industries gave $250,000 more. The RGA, in turn, spent $10 million supporting Walker during the recalls.

At a Koch donor summit in 2014, RGA Executive Director Phil Cox said that Kochs' Americans for Prosperity was a "tremendous partner" in Wisconsin and that the RGA had put $18 million into supporting Walker since 2010.

Wisconsin Club for Growth was also a major conduit for outside money during the recall elections, spending $9.1 million directly and funneling $10 million more to an array of outside groups. In 2011 they received $225,000 from the Kochs' Center to Protect Patient Rights. Its director Eric O'Keefe is a longtime Koch ally, going back to David Koch's 1980 VP run on the Libertarian ticket.

Walker is accused of illegally coordinating with WiCFG during the recalls, in an investigation that will be decided by a highly-conflicted Wisconsin Supreme Court in coming weeks.

Walker has long been the Kochs' man. Will he be the first Koch president?

News Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Sex, Drugs and Dead Soldiers: What US Africa Command Doesn't Want You to Know

Six people lay lifeless in the filthy brown water.

It was 5:09 a.m. when their Toyota Land Cruiser plunged off a bridge in the West African country of Mali. For about two seconds, the SUV sailed through the air, pirouetting 180 degrees as it plunged 70 feet, crashing into the Niger River.

Three of the dead were American commandos. The driver, a captain nicknamed "Whiskey Dan," was the leader of a shadowy team of operatives never profiled in the media and rarely mentioned even in government publications.  One of the passengers was from an even more secretive unit whose work is often integral to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which conducts clandestine kill-and-capture missions overseas.  Three of the others weren’t military personnel at all or even Americans.  They were Moroccan women alternately described as barmaids or "prostitutes."     

The six deaths followed an April 2012 all-night bar crawl through Mali’s capital, Bamako, according to a formerly classified report by U.S. Army criminal investigators. From dinner and drinks at a restaurant called Blah-Blah’s to more drinks at La Terrasse to yet more at Club XS and nightcaps at Club Plaza, it was a rollicking swim through free-flowing vodka. And vodka and Red Bull. And vodka and orange juice. And vanilla pomegranate vodka. And Chivas Regal.  And Jack Daniels.  And Corona beer. And Castel beer. And don’t forget B-52s, a drink generally made with Kahlúa, Grand Marnier, and Bailey’s Irish Cream. The bar tab at Club Plaza alone was the equivalent of $350 in U.S. dollars.

At about 5 a.m. on April 20th, the six piled into that Land Cruiser, with Captain Dan Utley behind the wheel, to head for another hotspot: Bamako By Night. About eight minutes later, Utley called a woman on his cell phone to ask if she was angry. He said he'd circle back and pick her up, but she told him not to bother. Utley then handed the phone to Maria Laol, one of the Moroccan women. “Don’t be upset.  We’ll come back and get you,” she said. The woman on the other end of the call then heard screaming before the line went dead.

A Command With Something to Hide

In the years since, U.S. Africa Command or AFRICOM, which is responsible for military operations on that continent, has remained remarkably silent about this shadowy incident in a country that had recently seen its democratically elected president deposed in a coup led by an American-trained officer, a country with which the U.S. had suspended military relations a month earlier. It was, to say the least, strange. But it wasn’t the first time U.S. military personnel died under murky circumstances in Africa, nor the first (or last) time the specter of untoward behavior led to a criminal investigation. In fact, as American military operations have ramped up across Africa, reaching a record 674 missions in 2014, reports of excessive drinking, sex with prostitutes, drug use, sexual assaults, and other forms of violence by AFRICOM personnel have escalated, even though many of them have been kept under wraps for weeks or months, sometimes even for years. 

“Our military is built on a reputation of enduring core values that are at the heart of our character,” Major (then Brigadier) General Wayne Grigsby Jr., the former chief of AFRICOM’s subordinate command, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), wrote in an address to troops last year.  “Part of belonging to this elite team is living by our core values and professionalism every day. Incorporating those values into everything we do is called our profession of arms.” 

But legal documents, Pentagon reports, and criminal investigation files, many of them obtained by TomDispatch through dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and never before revealed, demonstrate that AFRICOM personnel have all too regularly behaved in ways at odds with those “core values.”  The squeaky clean image the command projects through news releases, official testimony before Congress, and mainstream media articles -- often by cherry-picked journalists who are granted access to otherwise unavailable personnel and locales -- doesn’t hold up to inspection.

“As a citizen and soldier, I appreciate how important it is to have an informed public that helps to provide accountable governance and is also important in the preservation of the trust between a military and a society and nation it serves,” AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez said at a press conference last year.  Checking out these revelations of misdeeds with AFRICOM’S media office to determine just how representative they are, however, has proven impossible. 

I made several hundred attempts to contact the command for comment and clarification while this article was being researched and written, but was consistently rebuffed.  Dozens of phone calls to public affairs personnel went unanswered and scores of email requests were ignored.  At one point, I called AFRICOM media chief Benjamin Benson 32 times on a single business day from a phone that identified me by name.  It rang and rang.  He never picked up.  I then placed a call from a different number so my identity would not be apparent.  He answered on the second ring.  After I identified myself, he claimed the connection was bad and the line went dead.  Follow-up calls from the second number followed the same pattern -- a behavior repeated day after day for weeks on end.

This strategy, of course, mirrored the command’s consistent efforts to keep embarrassing incidents quiet, concealing many of them and acknowledging others only with the sparest of reports.  The command, for example, issued a five-sentence press release regarding those deaths in Bamako.  They provided neither the names of the Americans nor the identities of the “three civilians” who perished with them.  They failed to mention that the men were with the Special Operations forces, noting only that the deceased were “U.S. military members.”  For months after the crash, the Pentagon kept secret the name of Master Sergeant Trevor Bast, a communications technician with the Intelligence and Security Command (whose personnel often work closely with JSOC) -- until the information was pried out by the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock. 

“It must be noted that the activities of U.S. military forces in Mali have been very public,” Colonel Tom Davis of AFRICOM told TomDispatch in the wake of the deaths, without explaining why the commandos were still in the country a month after the United States had suspended military relations with Mali’s government.  In the years since, the command has released no additional information about the episode. 

True to form, AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson failed to respond to requests for comment and clarification, but according to the final report on the incident by Army criminal investigators (obtained by TomDispatch through a FOIA request), the deaths of Utley, Bast, Sergeant First Class Marciano Myrthil, and the three women “were accidental, however [Captain] Utley’s actions were negligent resulting in the passengers' deaths.”  A final review by a staff judge advocate from Special Operations Command Africa found that there was probable cause to conclude Utley was guilty of negligent homicide.

AFRICOM’s Sex Crimes

The criminal investigation of the incident in Mali touched upon relationships between U.S. military personnel and African “females.”  Indeed, the U.S. military has many regulations regarding romantic attachments and sexual activity.  AFRICOM personnel have not always adhered to such strictures and, in the course of my reporting, I asked Benson if the command has had a problem with sexual misconduct.  He never responded.  

In recent years, allegations of widespread sex crimes have dogged the U.S. military.  A Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 members of the armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012, though just one in 10 of those victims reported the assaults.  In 2013, the number of personnel reporting such incidents jumped by 50% to 5,518 and last year reached nearly 6,000.  Given the gross underreporting of sexual assaults, it’s impossible to know how many of these crimes involved AFRICOM personnel, but documents examined by TomDispatch suggests a problem does indeed exist.

In August 2011, for example, a Marine with Joint Enabling Capabilities Command assigned to AFRICOM was staying at a hotel in Germany, the site of the command’s headquarters.  He began making random room-to-room calls that were eventually traced.  According to court martial documents examined by TomDispatch, the recipient of one of them said the “subject matter of the phone call essentially dealt with a solicitation for a sexual tryst.” 

About a week after he began making the calls, the Marine, who had previously been a consultant for the CIA, began chatting up a boy in the hotel lounge.  After learning that the youngster was 14 years old, “the conversation turned to oral sex with men and the appellant asked [the teen] if he had ever been interested in oral sex with men.  He also told [the teen] that if the appellant or any of his male friends were aroused, they would have oral sex with one another,” according to legal documents.  The boy attempted to change the subject, but the Marine moved closer to him, began “rubbing his [own] crotch area through his shorts,” and continued to talk to him “in graphic detail about sexual matters and techniques” before the youngster left the lounge.  The Marine was later court-martialed for his actions and convicted of making a false official statement, as well as "engaging in indecent liberty with a child" -- that is, engaging in an act meant to arouse or gratify sexual desire while in a child’s presence.

That same year, according to a Pentagon report, a noncommissioned officer committed a sexual assault on a female subordinate at an unnamed U.S. base in Djibouti (presumably Camp Lemonnier, the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa).  “Subject grabbed victim's head and forced her to continue having sexual intercourse with him,” the report says.  He received a nonjudicial punishment including a reduction in rank, a fine of half-pay for two months, 45 days of restriction, and 45 days of extra duty.  The latter two punishments were later suspended and the perpetrator was, at the time the report was prepared, “being processed for administrative separation.” 

At an “unknown location” in Djibouti in 2011, an enlisted woman reported being raped by a fellow service member “while on watch.”  According to a synopsis prepared by the Department of Defense, that man “was not charged with any criminal violations in reference to the rape allegation against him. Victim pled guilty to failure to obey a lawful order and false official statement.” 

In a third case in Djibouti, an enlisted woman reported opening the door to her quarters only to be attacked.  An unknown assailant “placed his left hand over her mouth and placed his right hand under her shirt and began to slide it up the side of her body.”  All leads were later deemed exhausted and no suspect was identified.  According to Air Force documents obtained by TomDispatch, allegations also surfaced concerning an assault with intent to commit rape in Morocco, a forcible sodomy in Ethiopia, and possession of child pornography in Djibouti, all in 2012.

On July 22nd of that year, a group of Americans traveled to a private party in Djibouti attended by U.S. Ambassador Geeta Pasi and Major General Ralph Baker, the commander of a counterterrorism force in the Horn of Africa.  Baker drank heavily, according to an AFRICOM senior policy adviser who sat with him in the backseat of a sport utility vehicle on the return trip to Camp Lemonnier.  While two military personnel, one of them an agent of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), sat just a few feet away, Baker “forced his hand between [the adviser’s] legs and attempted to touch her vagina against her will,” according to a classified criminal investigation file obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

“I grabbed his hand and held it on the seat to try to prevent him from putting his hand deeper between my legs,” she told an investigator. “He responded by smiling at me and saying, ‘Cat got your tongue?’ I was appalled about what he was doing to me and did not know what to say.”  She later reported the offense via the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Hotline.  According to a report in the Washington Post, “Baker was given an administrative punishment at the time of the incident as well as a letter of reprimand -- usually a career-ending punishment.”  Demoted in rank to brigadier general, he was allowed to quietly retire in September 2013.

A Pentagon report on sexual assault lists allegations of three incidents in Djibouti in 2013 -- one act of “abusive sexual contact” and two reports of “wrongful sexual contact.”  The report also details a case in which a member of the U.S. military reported that she and a group of friends had been out eating and drinking at a local establishment.  Upon returning to her quarters at the base, one of her male companions asked to enter her room and she gave him permission.  He then began to kiss her neck and shoulders.  When she resisted, according to the report, “he grabbed her shorts and began to kiss and lick her vagina.”  That man was later charged with rape, abusive sexual contact, and wrongful sexual contact.  He was tried and acquitted.

The Pentagon has yet to issue its 2014 report on sexual assaults and AFRICOM has failed to release any statistics on its own, but given that military personnel fail to report most sexual crimes, whatever numbers may emerge will undoubtedly be drastic undercounts.

Sex, Drugs, and Guns

On the morning of April 10, 2010, a Navy investigator walked through the door of room 3092 at the Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort in Mombasa, Kenya.  Two empty wine bottles sat in the trash can.  Another was on the floor.  There were remnants of feminine hygiene products on the bathroom countertop, Axe body spray in an armoire, unopened condoms on a table, and inside a desk drawer, a tan powder that he took to be “an illicit narcotic,” all of this according to an official report by that NCIS agent obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act.    

Three days before, on April 7th, Sergeant Roberto Diaz-Boria of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard had been staying in this room.  On leave from Manda Bay, Kenya -- home of Camp Simba, a hush-hush military outpost in Africa -- he had come to Mombasa to kick back.  That night, along with a brother-in-arms, he ended up at Causerina, a nearby bar that locals said was a hotspot for drugs and prostitution.  Diaz-Boria left Causerina with a “female companion,” according to official documents, paid the requisite fee for such guests at the hotel, and took her to his room.  By morning, he was dead.  

A news story released soon after by Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa stated that Diaz-Boria had died while “stationed” in Mombasa.  The cause of death, the article noted, was “under investigation.”  CJTF-HOA failed to respond to a request for additional information about the case, but an Army investigation later determined that the sergeant “accidentally died of multiple drug toxicity after drinking alcohol and using cocaine and heroin.”  Where he obtained the drugs was never determined, but according to the summary of an interview with an NCIS agent, a close friend in his infantry unit did say that there were “rumors within the battalion about the easy access to very potent illegal narcotics in Manda Bay, Kenya.”    

Kenya is hardly an anomaly.  Criminal inquiries regarding illicit drug use also took place in Ethiopia in 2012 and Burkina Faso in 2013, while another investigation into distribution was conducted in Cameroon that same year, according to Air Force records obtained by TomDispatch.  AFRICOM did not respond to questions concerning any of these investigations.

In late 2012, when I asked what U.S. personnel were up to in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, AFRICOM spokesman Eric Elliott replied that troops were “supporting humanitarian activities in the area.”  Indeed, official documents and other sources indicate U.S. personnel have been carrying out aid activities in the region for years.  But that wasn't all they were doing. 

The Lonely Planet guide says that the Samrat Hotel provides the best digs in town, with a “classy lobby” and “a good nightclub and restaurant.”  The one drawback: “stiff mattresses.”  That apparently didn’t affect the activities of at least nine of 19 U.S. military personnel from the 775th Engineer Detachment of the Tennessee Army National Guard.  After an unidentified “local national female” was seen emerging from a “secured communications room” in the hotel, a preliminary investigation was launched and found “military members of the unit allegedly routinely solicited prostitutes in the lobby of the hotel and later brought the prostitutes back to their assigned rooms or to the secured communications room,” according to documents obtained via FOIA request.  A later report by Army agents determined that personnel from the 775th Engineer Detachment and the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion “individually engaged in sexual acts in exchange for money” at the hotel between July 1 and July 22, 2013.  In the room of a staff sergeant, investigators also found what appeared to be khat, a popular local narcotic that offers a hyperactive high marked by aggressiveness that ultimately leaves the user in a glassy-eyed daze.

A sworn statement by a medic who served in Dire Dawa that month -- obtained by TomDispatch in a separate FOIA request -- paints a picture of a debauched atmosphere of partying, local “girlfriends,” and a variety of sex acts.  “Originally, before we departed to Ethiopia, I grabbed around 70 condoms.  However, I was told that was not going to be enough,” said the medic, noting that it was his job to carry medical supplies.  Instead, he brought 200. He confessed to obtaining a prostitute through the bartender at the Samrat Hotel and admitted to engaging in sex acts with another woman who, he said, later revealed herself to be a prostitute.  He paid her the equivalent of $60.  Another service member showed him pictures of a “local national in his bed in his hotel room,” the medic told the NCIS agent.  He continued: 

“I know this girl is a prostitute because I pulled her from the club previously.  The name of the club was ‘The Pom-Pom’... I had hooked up with this girl before [redacted name] so when he showed me the photo I recognized the girl.  [Redacted name] stated how she had a nice booty and was good in bed... I want to say that [redacted name] told me he paid about 1,000 Birr (roughly $30 US dollars), but I can’t recall exactly.”

Army investigation documents obtained by TomDispatch also indicate similar extracurricular activities by members of the 607th Air Control Squadron and the 422nd Communications Squadron in neighboring Djibouti.  An inquiry by Army criminal investigators determined that there was probable cause to believe three noncommissioned officers “committed the offense of patronizing a prostitute” at an “off-base residence” in June 2013.

AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on or to provide further information about members of the command engaging in illicit sex.  It was similarly nonresponsive when it came to criminal inquests into allegations of arson in South Africa, larceny in Burkina Faso, graft in Algeria, and drunk and disorderly conduct in Nigeria, among other alleged crimes.  The command has kept quiet about violent incidents as well.

On April 19, 2013, for instance, something went terribly wrong in Manda Bay, Kenya.  A specialist with the Kentucky Army National Guard, deployed at Camp Simba and reportedly upset by a posting he saw on Facebook, got drunk on bourbon whiskey -- more than a fifth of Jim Beam, according to witnesses -- stole a 9mm pistol, and shot a superior officer.  He would also point the pistol at a staff sergeant and a master sergeant and then barricade himself in his barracks room.  A member of the Army’s Special Forces serving at the base told an NCIS agent what he saw when the soldier emerged from his quarters:

"He had a gun in his hand and he was waving it around with the barrel level.  He was saying something to the effect of ‘Fuck you!’ or something like that.  I heard the [redacted] say something like ‘put the gun down!’ a couple of times and then the [redacted] shot at the subject 2-3 times with his handgun."

The drunken soldier was hit once in the leg and later surrendered.  An investigation determined that the specialist had probably committed a host of offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including wrongful appropriation of government property, failure to obey an order, and aggravated assault, although a charge of attempted murder was deemed “unfounded.” The incident, detailed in previously classified documents, was never made public.

General Malfeasance

AFRICOM has certainly had its troubles, starting at the top, since it began overseeing the U.S. military pivot to Africa.  Its first chief, General William “Kip” Ward, who led the fledgling command from 2007 until 2011, was demoted after a 2012 investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office found he had committed a raft of misdeeds, such as using taxpayer-funded military aircraft for personal travel and spending lavishly on hotels.

During an 11-day trip to Washington, for example, he billed the government $129,000 in expenses for his wife, 13 employees, and himself, but conducted official business on just two of those days.  According to the Inspector General’s report, Ward also had AFRICOM personnel ferry his wife around and run errands for the two of them, including shopping for “candy and baby items, picking up flowers and books, delivering snacks, and acquiring tickets to sporting events.”  He even accepted “complimentary meals and Broadway show tickets” from a “prohibited source with multiple [Department of Defense] contracts.”  

Ward was ordered to repay the government $82,000 and busted down from four stars to three, which will cost him about $30,000 yearly in retirement pay.  He’ll now only receive $208,802 annually.  An AFRICOM webpage devoted to the highlights of Ward’s career mentions nothing of his transgressions, demotion, or punishment.  The only clue to all of this is his official photo.  In it, he’s sporting four stars while his bio states that “Ward retired at the rank of Lieutenant General in November 2012.”

Ward’s wasteful ways became major news, but the story of his malfeasance has been the exception.  For every SUV that plunged off a bridge or general who was busted down for misbehavior, how many other AFRICOM sexual assaults, shootings, and prostitution scandals remain unknown? 

For years, as U.S. military personnel moved into Africa in ever-increasing numbers, AFRICOM has effectively downplayed, disguised, or covered-up almost every aspect of its operations, from the locations of its troop deployments to those of its expanding string of outposts.  Not surprisingly, it’s done the same when it comes to misdeeds by members of the command and continues to ignore questions surrounding crimes and alleged misconduct by its personnel, refusing even to answer emails or phone calls about them.  With taxpayer money covering the salaries of lawbreakers and the men and women who investigate them, with America’s sons dying after drink and drug binges and its daughters assaulted and sexually abused while deployed, the American people deserve answers when it comes to the conduct of U.S. forces in Africa.  Personally, I remain eager to hear AFRICOM’s side of the story, should Benjamin Benson ever be in the mood to return my calls.    

News Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
On the News With Thom Hartmann: Nestle Has Been Pumping Water Out of California Without a Permit for 25 Years, and More

In today's On the News segment: Nestlé has been pumping water out of California without a permit for the last 25 years; an increase in illness is another effect of our environmental destruction; 25,000 Canadians marched through Quebec City earlier this month to demand an end to tar sands development and more action on climate change; and more.

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


Thom Hartmann here - on the best of the rest of ... Science and Green news ...

You need to know this. If the warming temperatures and super storms don't kill us, we still must survive the onslaught of deadly illnesses that will become more common on a hotter planet. According to a recent piece in Mother Jones Magazine, California's drought has led to a massive increase in West Nile virus cases. And, that's not the only illness that prefers warmer weather. Earlier this month, a 20-year old woman died after contracting a brain-eating amoeba that's normally found in hot springs and under-chlorinated pools. Both of these illnesses survive and spread more easily in hotter temperatures, and they're only two out of many. Although we had plenty already, this is yet another reason why we must do all that we can in the fight against global warming. As the Weather Channel recently explained, illnesses like West Nile and Lyme disease are typically more common in warmer months. But, normal summer increases are dwarfed by the 800 cases of West Nile diagnosed in 2014, and the 31 deaths that occurred as a result. Warmer temperatures act as a breeding ground for various germs, and allow insects that carry viruses to multiply. While we have to do everything we can to try and stop temperatures from rising, we must also deal with the consequences of a century of pumping carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Just like the super storms, droughts, and sea level rise that we're already experiencing, the increase in illness is another effect of our environmental destruction. If we want to reduce the chances that illness will spread, we must reduce the chances that our planet will get even hotter. Saving our species will require climate solutions, and it will require us to deal with the illness and consequences that we've already locked in to our future.

Back in February, First Lady Michelle Obama declared that if the big junk food producers "are going to pour money into marketing unhealthy foods, then let's fight back with ads for healthy food." And, while it wouldn't be a bad thing for Americans to see more commercials promoting healthy food choices, an ad campaign for fruits and vegetables isn't enough to get folks to put down the junk food. The new campaign will have a budget of $5 million, which is one half of one percent of the $10 billion that food companies spend on advertising every year. The fact is that ads for broccoli and apples are never going to be able to compete with ads for junk food. In order to really change how people eat, we need to educate them about food choices, and we need to make healthy food more available and affordable. It doesn't matter how many commercials someone sees if they're living in a food desert, or if they can't afford to buy those fruits and vegetables. There's nothing wrong with the first lady's plan to sell more healthy food, but we have to make sure that more people are actually willing and able to buy it.

If we want to generate more solar energy, perhaps we should take a few ideas from South Korea. Last week, published a story on that country's new 20-mile bike lane, which is covered in a massive solar array. That new bike lane encourages more South Koreans to use bikes by providing them with a covered lane that protects them from rain and sun. And, it generates a ton of clean energy. According to South Korea's Ministry of Security and Public Administration, seven out of 10 Koreans own bicycles, but most consider biking a leisure activity, not transportation. Encouraging more people to bike helps reduce carbon pollution, encourages physical activity, and helps alleviate traffic congestion. Today, only 2.5 percent of transportation in South Korea occurs on a bike, but that nation is looking to improve that number. By providing safe bike paths that also generate clean energy, South Korea is on track to succeed at their goal, and hopefully inspire more nations – like ours – to build a few solar bike paths of our own.

In the midst of California's massive drought, regulators are doing a little more digging into companies that use large amounts of that state's water. What they've found is stunning. According to Faith Gardner over at the Daily Kos, Nestlé has been pumping water out of that state without a permit for the last 25 years. A group of environmental activists is protesting the fact that Nestle pumps up to 80 million gallons a year out of aquifers, "while Sacramentans who use a mere 7 to 10 percent of total water used in the State of California, have had severe restrictions and limitations forced upon them." The U.S. Forrest Service admits that it has a severe backlog of expired permits, but they say that Nestlé's permit "has gone to the top of the pile." It's unacceptable that corporations are pumping water out for a profit while citizens are facing restrictions, and it's unimaginable that they would ever be able to do so without a permit. The water in California is part of the commons, and regulators need to do a much better job of making sure that it is protected.

And finally... Americans aren't the only ones protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Earlier this month, 25,000 Canadians marched through Quebec City to demand an end to tar sands development and more action on climate change. The march was organized by a coalition of environmental and social justice activists known as the "Act on Climate March," and it included representatives from political groups and the First Nations. Protesters hoped to influence the climate change discussions being held by Canadian officials last week, and called on premiers to stop TransCanada's Energy East tar sands pipeline. One of the organizers explained, "We're worried that premiers will meet and say yes to protecting our climate, and, at the same time, [say] yes to oil infrastructure such as pipelines and expanding oil sands production." He added, "You can either protect our climate or you can develop the tar sands, but you cannot do both at the same time." It's that simple. Hopefully, these protesters will keep fighting until all tar sands development comes to an end.

And that's the way it is for the week of April 20, 2015 – I'm Thom Hartmann, on Science and Green News.

News Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Commodified and Caged, Still

It is a hard and unpopular truth to say that all oppressions are connected, to say that our treatment of other species and the earth herself has served as the template for our oppression of peoples. But it has. It is a harder and even more unpopular truth to say that all oppressions must be undone and undone together. The lust for the false power derived from relations of domination - directed anywhere - is at the root.

Statue created by Joseph Whitehead, erected in 1906 in Battersea, London, in memory of the Brown Dog, a terrier that endured vivisection over the course of two months before dying.Statue created by Joseph Whitehead, erected in 1906 in Battersea, London, in memory of the Brown Dog, a terrier that endured vivisection over the course of two months before dying. (Photo: National Anti-Vivisection Society)Do you want media that's accountable to YOU, not to corporate sponsors? Help publish journalism with real integrity and independence - donate to Truthout!

(This post is an updated and revised version of a post that originally appeared in the Criminal Injustice Series at Critical Mass Progress)

Author's Note: This piece is an old one, whose time is always now.  It was originally published elsewhere, under a different name, for my anti-capitalist comrades. The goal, as you will see, was to illustrate the deep connections between speciesism, commodification and social inequalities. And yes, it was a call to Open the Cages.

So why not for Criminal InJustice? Certainly, "criminals" are routinely "de-humanized" - described as mere "animals," "monsters" and "brutes." And treated as such then - caged, penned, crated, occasionally exhibited, brutalized, slaughtered. Commodified too - a ready source of profit from neo-slave labor, privatized contracts, and sometimes, even for "acres of skin."

And why not again now? In a time of endless death on video loop, where victims, they say,  are "shot down like dogs in the street" by those that some call "pigs," foundational specieism is revealed in theory and practice. Our conceptions of both victims and villains rest on the assumptions that humans are better, deserve better. This leaves unquestioned and in fact perpetuates the very paradigm of domination - of dogs, of pigs, of the planet - that is the model for our treatment of dehumanized others.

As I have written elsewhere:

It is a hard and unpopular truth to say that all oppressions are connected, to say that our treatment of other species and the earth herself has served as the template for our oppression of peoples. But it has.

It is a harder and even more unpopular truth to say that all oppressions must be undone and undone together. The lust for the false power derived from relations of domination – directed anywhere – is at the root.

What if the prison industrial complex and the social inequality which undergirds it were somehow undone? What would prevent the lingering desire to crate the sow, cage the bird, chain the dog, beat the horse, gore the ox from erupting – again towards us – in some newly imagined and monstrous application?

The Answer is Nothing.

In this time of endless death on video loop, the inclination is to hunker down, narrow the focus, save our own, save who we can. But what if, instead, now is the time to explode the vision, broaden the scope, fight for every and all that breathes?

The fate of The Last Rhino is not marginal to or disconnected from the blood in the streets and the slaughterhouses, from the personal violence of our homes and that perpetrated by our social structures.

It is at the Center; it is of the very Essence.

Open the Cages and Open Them All.


"In Memory of the Brown Terrier Dog done to Death in the Laboratories of University College in February 1903, after having endured Vivisection extending over more than two months and having been handed from one Vivisector to another till Death came to his Release.

Also in Memory of the 232 dogs vivisected at the same place during the year 1902.

Men and Women of England, how long shall these things be?" ~ National Anti-Vivisectionist Society

London 1902. What is now known as "The Brown Dog Affair" is the the first undercover investigation of animal experiments by anti-vivisectionists. The case began in December 1902, when Professor Starling at University College London performed his first operation on the terrier dog, depriving it of the use of its pancreas. During the following two months the dog lived in a cage, upsetting many with its howls and whines.

In February 1903, Professor Starling opened up the dog’s abdomen to inspect the result of the first operation. He then clamped the wound with forceps and handed the animal over to Dr. Bayliss, who made a completely new wound in the neck for the purpose of a lecture demonstration to students. After another half hour, the animal apparently suffering greatly, was given to Mr. Dale, an unlicensed research student who killed it either by chloroform or by surgical means.

In attendance that day were two Swedish anti-vivisectionists, Leisa Schartau and Louise Lind-af-Hageby. They had enrolled as students at the London School of Medicine for Women so that they could learn first-hand about the work in such laboratories, attended that lecture demonstration. They carefully noted the facts of this case in their diary, in which they were recording the details of the experiments they had witnessed during their studies at UCL. Schartau and Hageby soon after gave up there studies and decided to show their diary, which was now a substantial manuscript, to the Honorary Secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, the Hon. Stephen Coleridge. The information which they recorded was published as a book entitled The Shambles of Science, which documented both the cruelty and the levity that surrounded the live dissection of animals in medical lectures.

A decades long public and legal battle ensued with accusations of legal violations, a much publicized libel suit brought against Coleridge, public protests, a statue erected in honor of the Brown Dog, and its eventual removal due to a series of "Brown Dog Riots" - ongoing clashes between medical students bent on destroying the statue and anti-vivisectionists known now as "brown-doggers."

But The Brown Dog of course remained dead. And vivisection continued apace, albeit now ever shrouded in more secrecy.

Because these dogs were deemed less than human.

They were only animals, and above all, they were property.


"The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men."Alice Walker

At the heart, the critique of capitalism, indeed the indictment of all hierarchical class arrangements, is a critique, not only of profit, but of private property. It is private property that gives rise to social inequality, to the ever-shifting stratification of those who own a particular mode of production be it agricultural, industrial or post-industrial and those who labor under it.

And the first ownership, the first domination, is that of humans over nature, in the ownership of land and the "domestication" of animals. As humans shift from foraging to horticulture and herding, the relationship between humans and nature is shifted from one of kinship to dominion. And of course, from there it is a short journey to the subjugation of other humans according to class, race, gender, orientation, ability, and age.

The roots of anthropocentrism and specieism run deep in Western/Eurocentric thought. They are evident in dominionist interpretations of the Judeo-Christian Creation Story, in the philosophy Aristotle (i.e. The Great Chain of Being), and in Cartesian idealism and mind/body dualism. Of course the rise of capitalism coincides with the rise of the mechanistic, reductionist and misogynist "science" of Bacon and the race and species classification schemes of Linneaus, and the Industrial era fuels an unprecedented exploitation of both nature and animals.

Marx and Engels both warn of the dangers of unchecked anthropocentrism throughout their work, including Capital and the Dialectics of Nature. The relationship between humans and nature is central to their theory.

Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die.. ~ Estranged Labour, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Too often, the anti-capitalist critique has focused centrally on the question of classism, to the exclusion of the intersections with racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism and ableism. And, despite recent explorations of the Marxist position on nature, the foundations of human inequality in anthropocentrism and speciesim are even less explored.

What follows is an argument for an anti-capitalist consideration of ecological and animal rights and a rejection of the rock bottom root of all relations of domination.

A rejection of the notion that deems them less than human.

A rejection of the notion that they are only animals, and above all, they are property.


"The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny." ~ Jeremy Bentham (1832)

The ownership of earth and animals is an extensive and often unquestioned element of industrial production. While there has been much focus on the exploitative impact of mining, drilling for fossil fuels and manufacturing, the large-scale and unrelenting industrialization of agriculture – both the production grains and meat – represents the greatest threat to planetary and animal well-being. From the mid-twentieth century on, this has accelerated at an astounding pace, fueled by massive amounts of chemicals –pesticides and herbicides, hormones, antibiotics and the mass production,assembly line methods of the factory.

Increasingly reductionist, the ownership of plants and animals extends now to DNA. The landmark case of Diamond v Charkarbarty (1980) allowed for the patenting of “life forms” and paved the way for the bio-tech biopiracy of seeds by the Monsantos and Cargills and new profits in genetically engineered laboratory animals and future markets in FDA approved cloned meats.

The sheer volume of profits in ownership of animals as "livestock" in the U.S. alone represents annual profit of more than $100 billion and the power of Big Ag lobbies such as the National Pork Producers Council and National Cattleman's Beef Association are far-reaching. Just Ask Oprah. In fact. these "animal enterprises" are so lucrative and powerful that under the terms of The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006, any efforts to intentionally "damage or cause the loss of any real or personal property" -in other words mere vandalism – is now defined as an act of terrorism.

The highly protected profits are surely high, but the body count is even more astounding.

In all, 8.1 billion animals died to feed Americans in 2013. Over a lifetime, this amounts to 2.088 land animals per meat eater.

In 2013, the average American meat eater was responsible for the deaths of 26.5 land animals:

1/8 of a cow, 3/8 of a pig, 3/4 of a turkey, 25 chickens for meat and eggs, and untold numbers of fish and shellfish.

In addition –

Approximately 100 million animals die each year for medical and psychiatric research, dissection labs, military and consumer product tests.

Untold millions are killed annually for their skins. 85% are raised on fur farms; the rest are trapped or clubbed.

Untold millions more languish and die in circuses, rodeos, zoos, fairs, bullfights, cockfights, dogfights, horse and dog racing, and road side exotic animal shows.

The suffering??? Immeasurable - cramped, beaten, drugged, deprived of any and all natural habitat and habits, debeaked, defanged, declawed, castrated, mutilated, branded all without anesthetic, trucked for days in all conditions without food or water to their final destination to be stunned, shocked, throats slit and all too often, skinned or boiled alive.

Because they are deemed less than human.

They are only animals, and above all, they are property.


"Throughout the history of our ascent to dominance as the master species, our victimization of animals has served as the model and foundation for our victimization of each other…The road to Auschwitz begins at the slaughterhouse." – Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka, 2002

Like all structures of inequality, anthropocentrism and speciesism are supported by ideological justifications which legitimate discriminatory treatment, in this case, as property. It has variously been argued that animals cannot reason, cannot experience pain as humans do, are incapable of developing tools or sensing their own mortality.

Although specieism is one of the most entrenched and unexamined pieces of the hegemony of hierarchy, language reveals the ordering of species and the attendant protections they may or may or may nor receive. There are the companion animals, the service animals, the work horses,"wildlife," livestock, aka "living property" and the even less regarded world of reptiles and amphibians and insects, most frequently referred to as mere "pests." Their fate and the few exceptions from cruelty rest on their proximity to humans and at best, are rights in the negative sense of protection from "cruelty." This is afforded only to the companion animals. Most mammals are only granted some theoretical exemption from excessive cruelty as they are experimental subjects (see The Animal Welfare Act which excludes reptiles/amphibians and birds from protection) and or promised via The Humane Slaughter Act the hope of unconsciousness as they are hoisted, slit, gutted and skinned.

Speciesism was and remains the foundation for our vilification of "other" people, evident in the epithets we hurl their way - rat, snake, dog, pig, vermin, bitch, brute, animal.

However much offense may be taken at PETA's often impolitic exposition of the connections between human and animal exploitation here's the hard truth: a substantial literature documents how various groups - Blacks, Native Americans, women, children, Jews, Arabs - have been deemed less than human, and beaten, branded, raped, mutilated, enslaved and exterminated as a result. Speciesism has been the platform upon which wars, slavery, sweatshops, lynch mobs, and death camps have been built; it is the bedrock of all inequality. Our domination of nature and its many species offers the paradigm and the practice for the oppression of "others."

Because they are deemed less than human.

They are only animals, and above all, they are property.


"To Feel No Pain
Montgomery will not give up her secrets easily.
Pouring rain
Whitewashes the shotgun shack.
Good old boys celebrate her fruits with their music…." ~
Anarcha Project

Montgomery Alabama 1846 -1853. Dr. J. Marion Sims (1813-1883) is now known as both "The Father of Gynecology" and "The Father of Vaginal Surgery." Sims was born in South Carolina and practiced there, in Alabama, New York City, and throughout France. He is widely recognized for laying the foundations for modern gynecology, pioneering the use of surgical steel sutures, and developing several techniques in vaginal surgery. What is less known about Sims is "the fact that many of his accomplishments ….were obtained at the expense and the surgical exploitation of Black women." While Sims went to some length to hide his use of slave subjects, featuring white women in anatomy articles and texts, his primary research subjects were three female slaves – Betsy, Lucy, and Anarcha. He operated on each of these women as many as 30 times without anesthesia, believing that blacks did not have the same capacity for pain as whites. Sims even went so far as to purchase Anarcha in order to continue operating on her. In addition, he addicted all these women to opiates in order to facilitate their post-operative recovery and expedite another round of surgeries.

After moving to New York in 1853, Sims continued his exploitation of poor and African American women, exposing them to dangerous experimental surgeries at the Women's Hospital of New York City. Describing the death of an African American woman after such a surgery, MacGregor (1998) writes:

"Clearly from Sims' point of view, the life of the patient in this case was expendable. Her body in many ways had become his even before she died… While he placed his findings at the altar of science, her class and her race placed her at Sims' disposal."

Because these women were deemed less than human.

They were only animals, and above all, they were property.


"As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
and dispel the miseries of the world."
~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Human supremacy has wrought untold suffering. The notion that nature and its’ many species can be bought and sold and owned and exploited as property is at the root of the suffering, of not only the Brown Dog, but of Anaracha, Lucy and Betsy as well.

Whatever their differences, whatever their unique gifts and beauty, this much is true - "When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

Human Supremacy is a Western conceit, one never adopted by those who are wiser. The ideas expressed here are old ones, never lost, just merely rediscovered by scholars and activists who resist the prevailing strands of Western thought.

Many now stand again against anthropocentrism and speciesism, recognizing that a critique of property relations and social inequality must challenge too this foundational domination. Many now see again that all beings have a fundamental right not to be considered property. Many now stand stand again for the abolition of all animal exploitation.

Because they are not less than human.

They are never mere property. They are Living, Sentient Beings.

Opinion Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Did NBC Cover Up Role of US-Backed Free Syrian Army in 2012 Kidnapping of Richard Engel?

NBC News is at the center of a new controversy, this time focused on its chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. Back in 2012 he and five other members of an NBC News team were kidnapped by armed gunmen in Syria. They were held for five days. Just after his release Engel spoke on NBC News and said this about his captors: "This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. They are Shiite." Well, earlier this week, a New York Times investigation prompted Engel to revise his story and reveal he was actually captured by Sunni militants affiliated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. In an article published on Wednesday, Engel said the kidnappers had "put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen." According to the Times' investigation, NBC knew more than it let on about the kidnappers. We speak to As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He runs the Angry Arab News Service blog. He expressed serious doubts about the circumstances surrounding Engel’s captivity and release when the story first broke in December 2012.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: NBC News is at the center of a new controversy, this time focused on its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel. Back in 2012, Engel and five other members of an NBC News team were kidnapped by armed gunmen in Syria. They were held for five days. Just after his release, Engel spoke on NBC News about his captors.

RICHARD ENGEL: I think I have a very good idea of who they were. This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. They are Shiite. They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing their Shia faith. They are trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They are allied with Hezbollah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel speaking after he was released in December 2012.

Well, earlier this week, a New York Times investigation prompted Engel to revise his story and reveal he was actually captured by Sunni militants affiliated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. An article published on Wednesday, Engel said the kidnappers had, quote, "put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen." According to the Times investigation, NBC knew at the time that Engel and the others were held on a chicken farm widely known to be controlled by a Sunni criminal group. NBC was also informed of the identities of two Sunni men possibly involved in the kidnapping, but the network and Engel never relayed this information to the public and repeatedly claimed the kidnapping was done by Shiite militants linked to Syria President Assad.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times investigation also raised questions about Richard Engel’s rescue. Engel originally said he was rescued by Sunni rebels after his captors accidentally drove into a checkpoint. In fact, the Shiite rebel groups holding the NBC crew created a ruse to free them and blame the kidnapping on the Assad regime—the Sunni groups that were holding him blamed it on the Assad regime. Engel had also previously said two of his captors died during a gunfight at the checkpoint.

The controversy over Engel’s kidnapping comes just three months after NBC suspended Nightly News anchor Brian Williams after admitting that a story he told about coming under fire in a helicopter during the Iraq War was not true. On Thursday, journalist Glenn Greenwald described NBC News’s conduct in the Engel case to be more troubling than the Brian Williams scandal. Greenwald wrote, quote, "[T]he NBC story was quite likely to fuel the simmering war cries in the West to attack (or at least aggressively intervene against) Assad. That’s a far more serious and far more consequential journalistic sin than a news reader puffing out his chest and pretending he’s Rambo," he wrote.

We’re joined now by As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He runs the Angry Arab News Service blog. He expressed serious doubts about the circumstances surrounding Engel’s captivity and release when the story first broke in December of 2012.

So, let’s begin with what has been revealed now and what you were saying, As’ad AbuKhalil, back then, at the end of 2012, after the newsmen were released.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, Amy, I was early on skeptical, not only about the conditions in which he was supposedly released and the statements he made at the time, but I was skeptical about the entire enterprise of Western journalistic coverage of Syria, particularly by American correspondents in the region. There was a lot of stuff that’s been told and transmitted that contradicted the realities on the ground. They created this myth about a moderate, secular group called the Free Syrian Army. And they were, in fact, attacking people like myself and others who were saying that the bulk of the fighting force of the so-called Syrian revolutionaries were militant fanatics of the bin Ladenite style. And in reality, we knew at the time that what is so-called the Free Syrian Army is no more than a coterie of criminal gangs and thugs that were running amok throughout the area of the so-called liberated sections of Syria, and they were engaged in sectarian kidnapping, ransoms, murder, indiscriminate shelling, and they would sometimes kidnap people, and they’d sell them to other gangs and so on.

So, but there is also something political, as Glenn mentioned, which is, there is—there was a war lobby. There were people hedging at the time in order to get the United States to intervene militarily on the side of these rebels, along with Saudi Arabia, the same allies that we now have in the so-called war on Yemen. And at the time, the statements that Richard Engel made—and I should mention that what is—I mean, there is a political story, and there’s a journalistic story. I mean, there are questions to be raised not only about the credibility of Mr. Engel, but also about bad judgment. And this is a correspondent, one of the few who’s fluent in Arabic. He can speak it fluently, he can understand it. And yet, upon his release, he taped a video in Arabic for the propaganda arm of the Free Syrian Army, in which he made fantastic claims. And I went and watched it yesterday to my amazement. I mean, he admitted yesterday to The New York Times that in fact he may have lied when he said he witnessed, at the time of his rescue, dead bodies. Now he’s saying he didn’t. But if you watch the video he taped for the Free Syrian Army benefit, he in fact claimed he saw more dead bodies upon being captured. And he also told a fantastic story about how these awful Shiite militias went about to burn somebody alive, but they couldn’t find enough gasoline. I mean, he has to account for that. Plus, I mean, upon his—

AMY GOODMAN: Let us go—let us go to Richard Engel and his crew appearing on NBC hours after their release in December 2012, Engel describing how he and his crew were ambushed by a group of about 15 gunmen while traveling with Syrian rebels and held for five days in captivity. He then described how they were freed.

RICHARD ENGEL: We were being moved to yet another location in the late—around 11:00 last night, local time. And as we were moving along the road, the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn’t expected. And so, we were in the back of what you would think of as a minivan. And as we were driving along the road, the kidnappers saw this checkpoint, started a gunfight with it. Two of the kidnappers were killed. We climbed out of the vehicle, and the rebels took us. We spent the night with them.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Richard Engel describing what happened, hours after their release in December 2012. As’ad AbuKhalil, that description, how it has changed, and how much NBC knew? They, you know, used all of their resources to try to free these men, these reporters, their reporters, and their fixer, as well. And talk about who they communicated with to show how they knew who the forces were who were holding him. Again, the story now is that it was both Sunnis that held him and Sunnis that then staged this release.


AMY GOODMAN: But both of them saying that it was Shia affiliated with Assad. And, of course, when you say Shia, people think Iran, as well.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Not only that, I mean, Richard Engel, upon his release, went out of his way to invoke the names not only of Iran, of Hezbollah. And he said it, in fact, in one of the tapes early in the program. And when he did the interview with the Free Syrian Army propagandists, which is available on YouTube—I posted it on my blog—he in fact said that their demands were the release of four Iranians in Syria, as well as two militiamen from the Amal Shiite Lebanese militia. But why did he invoke Amal—if it was really Amal, why did he invoke Hezbollah? And then he would say repeatedly, with a straight face, that "We knew they were Shabiha because they told us." That word "shabiha" is colloquial Syrian for "thugs." So, this is the name that is given to pro-Assad regime militiamen by their opponents and the armed rebels. So, imagine somebody identifying himself or herself as a "thug." And that’s the story we were led to believe.

Plus, there was a footage of the actual room in which these hostages were held. You look at this old room with old paint, and suddenly you see fresh paint of clearly, explicitly identifiable Shiite slogans. Plus, he said they were—he said that in the segment which you aired, in fact—he said they were explicitly worshiping in a Shiite manner. I mean, didn’t he in any way, you know, question why that was the case? I mean, look, I am not naïve. Many of these Western correspondents are engaged—have been engaged in part of the war lobby in propaganda effort to champion the cause of the Free Syrian Army. This Free Syrian Army not only kidnapped these journalist. At the time, they were kidnapping innocent Lebanese on the basis of their sect. Some of them they were selling, and some of them they were exchanging. I mean, there are two missing bishops from Aleppo that nobody talks about. They kidnapped even nuns. But there is such a glamorization and such romanticization of these awful rebels in Syria, whether of the criminal type of the Free Syrian Army or the bin Ladenite style in Syria, to the point where nobody wanted to believe that they are capable of such a, you know, dastardly act. And that’s what happened.

But it seems to me there—you know, so the story has two levels: the political one and the journalism one. And on both cases, Richard Engel’s credibility has sunk very low, I mean, in my judgment, if you watch the video and the things he was saying, fawning praise for the Free Syrian Army. And also, let us mention, he in fact credited a group called Ahrar Ash-Sham, which is a bin Ladenite group founded by a friend of Osama bin Laden. He was calling them—the word in Arabic can either mean "rebels" or "revolutionaries." And he heaped praise on them. He even taped a propaganda video for their benefit, as well. So there is a political agenda and a political service that was done. Now, in no way I am saying—I don’t have any evidence—that Richard Engel was part of the plot or he was in it. He looked genuinely scared when—and relieved when he was released and so on. But he made statements that we now know cannot be true.

AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He runs the Angry Arab News Service blog. We will link to your blog at This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Stay with us.

News Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Marilyn Baptiste Is the Winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for Her Activism in Canada

A former chief of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation, Marilyn Baptiste led her community in defeating one of the largest proposed gold and copper mines in British Columbia that would have destroyed Fish Lake - a source of spiritual identity and livelihood for the Xeni Gwet'in.

She is the North America winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's largest award for grassroots environmental activists.

For more information about Marilyn and how you can help, visit

News Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Greece's Yanis Varoufakis: The Medicine of Austerity Is Not Working, We Need a New Treatment

With the debt clock ticking, Greece is fast running out of money. The country has ordered all state bodies to place their cash reserves in the nation’s central bank, the Bank of Greece, as it struggles to stay afloat. Greece is suppose to receive the last installment of its bailout funds from European creditors, but the country’s new leftist, anti-austerity Syriza party has expressed concerns about its terms. The creditors are reportedly pressuring the country to restructure its labor market and curtail its pension system; Syriza has instead done the opposite by increasing pension payments to lower-wage workers. On Friday, eurozone finance ministers will decide whether to release emergency funds to Greece. Without the funds, Greece may default on its debt payments in coming weeks and put its membership in the eurozone at risk. We go to Athens to speak with Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: With the debt clock ticking, Greece is fast running out of money. The country has ordered all state bodies to place their cash reserves in the nation’s central bank, the Bank of Greece, as it struggles to stay afloat. Greece is supposed to receive the last installment of its bailout funds from European creditors, but the country’s new leftist, anti-austerity Syriza party has expressed concerns about its terms. The creditors are reportedly pressuring the country to restructure its labor market and curtail its pension system; Syriza has instead done the opposite by increasing pension payments to lower-wage workers. Speaking in Washington, D.C., last week, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, urged Greece to restore stability.

CHRISTINE LAGARDE: What needs to happen now is that the political views need to actually deliver the measures, the tools, the reforms that will actually reach the objectives that have been set between the international community and Greece: restore stability, improve the economy, make sure that one of these days Greece re-accesses the financial market on its own and without support. So that’s what needs to happen. And we are completely available to work with the Greek authorities on those objectives.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, eurozone finance ministers will decide whether to release emergency funds to Greece. Without the funds, Greece may default on its debt payments in coming weeks and put its membership in the eurozone at risk.

For more, we go directly to Athens, Greece, where we’re joined by Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He’s not only a political economist, but also something of a global celebrity. Prospect magazine lists him as number two on its list of the world’s leading thinkers, right after French economist Thomas Piketty and before Canadian author Naomi Klein.

Yanis Varoufakis, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you tell us what you are calling for right now? How high are the stakes?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: I would like to phrase my answer in terms that do not resemble a Hollywood movie and a kind of conflictual confrontation. The way I see it is this. Greece has been in the clasps of a major crisis for the last five years. We had a very serious recession that led to a depression. So the question is: How can we put an end to this never-ending downward spiral so as to stabilize our economy, create conditions for the return of a degree of social justice, and also repay our debts to our creditors?

And there are two narratives here, two competing narratives. The official version, until we got elected, was that Greece was on the mend, that austerity was working. Our proposition to the Greek people—on which basis we were elected, were given a mandate—was the opposite, that the medicine wasn’t working. It wasn’t just that it was bitter and we didn’t want to take it; it was that it was toxic and it was making a bad thing worse. It was worse than the disease. So, this is what’s at stake here. You asked me, "How high are the stakes?" It’s a question of establishing what needs to be done in order to return Greece to a sustainable path.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Yanis Varoufakis, you’ve talked, in your speech that you gave at the Brookings Institution, of the design failures of the European Union. Could you talk about that?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Look, this is an open secret, it’s a common secret, that the eurozone was never designed in order to sustain the shockwaves of the major financial markets earthquake of 2008. So it was like all monetary unions that lack a shock-absorbing mechanism, a mechanism for recycling surpluses.

Let me give you an example in the American context. Remember what happened in 1929? There was a global currency of sorts, the gold standard, that created very sharp, very quick flows of capital, even back then, even though the Internet was not available at the time and there were no computers. And that created bubbles that eventually burst, beginning of course with Wall Street. And the result was that the burden of adjustment went onto the devastated nations and the devastated parts within the United States. So, what did FDR do? What did the Roosevelt administration do with the New Deal? It created mechanisms for recycling deficits and surpluses within the United States of America through Social Security, through the Fed, the FDIC, so that when the next crisis happened in 2008, which was of course monumental, even in the United States—the next 1929 in 2008 happened, the state of Nevada did not have to bail out the banks domiciled in Nevada, and the state of Nevada did not have to worry about paying for the unemployment benefits. You had these shock-absorbing mechanisms. You had the FDIC looking after the banks of Nevada, and you had Social Security at the federal level paying, through surplus recycling, by—automatically, without even a political decision. Taxes from New York state and California were diverted to pay for the unemployment benefits in Nevada. These are the kinds of mechanisms that you need in order to render a monetary union stable, and Europe never had those.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the opposition lawmaker, Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the New Democracy party, which is the former governing party of Greece. He criticized your party, the governing party, Syriza’s party’s approach to Greece’s financial troubles.

KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS: [What the government is doing] is devastating for economic activity in Greece, all this uncertainty, the downgradings, the fact that the government is using all the available cash, paying no one, the fact that the banks are funneling all their liquidity to support the government. It’s completely catastrophic for the real economy. So, inaction has a real cost.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanis Varoufakis, your response?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Well, look, if it were true that the Greek economy was on the mend prior to our election and that it was on a sustainable path, then my colleague would be right. Unfortunately, it isn’t true. The debt deflationary crisis was continuing, inexorably. Nominal incomes continued to fall. Private and public debt continued to rise. The banks could not function as credit-providing institutions. Investment was negative. And generally speaking, the Greek economy was like a drug addict that relied on the next dose of loans from its international and European creditors.

And what we tried to do was to say to our international and European creditors, to our partners in Europe and to the whole world that this recipe was simply not working. And we took a very considered view and a very principled position. We said that, look, if we sign on the dotted line of this existing program, IMF-inspired program, then, of course, we will secure another $5-7 billion—this is a new dose, if you want—and our addiction will continue, but at least we will have our dose for a few more months. We didn’t take that dose. We didn’t sign on the dotted line, because we want to get rid of the addiction. We want to stabilize the Greek economy.

And if this means that there’s going to be a standoff for a few months between us and our creditors, who don’t like to hear that the program they have been enforcing and implementing in Greece for the last five years was a failure—nobody likes to be told that whatever you’ve been doing for five years is a failure—well, this is the price, however, we had to pay in order to reboot Greece and to reboot our relationship with our creditors. The only way you could be heard was to say, "We are not interested in getting this loan tranche until and unless we have a rethink of the whole program, so that Greece stops going down the path of the downward spiral of debt deflation." And if, in the meantime, this means that our bonds have been downgraded, well, from what? From minus a million to minus one million and one, right? Then, so be it. We were not elected to lie. We were elected to say to our own people and to the people around the world that this medicine has not been working, we need a new treatment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but meanwhile, many world leaders keep putting pressure on Greece. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned that a full-blown crisis in your country would impact the wider European and global economy. This is what he said.

TREASURY SECRETARY JACK LEW: If there is a crisis, it will first hit Greece, and it will hit the Greek people very hard, but it is something that the European and global economy do not need, to have another crisis. So, it’s in everyone’s interest to find that space, but the Greek government needs to come forward with the kinds of details that the institutions and they can work through to find the kind of program that can have that kind of confidence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your response to Treasury Secretary Lew?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Well, Secretary Lew is absolutely spot-on, quite right. This is a crisis we don’t have to have. It’s a standoff that we should have ended some time ago. It is completely correct to say that if this negotiation fails to achieve a mutually advantageous outcome, then the repercussions will be dire, not just, of course, for the Greek people, but for the international economy. We are completely in agreement with that. And what I believe that Jack Lew has been doing over the last few days and weeks is he’s been applying pressure to both the Greek government, of course, but, on the other hand, the institutions—the IMF, the European Central Bank, the European Commission, European partners—to get to an agreement.

On the question of proposals to settle this agreement, I can assure you now, for quite a few weeks—actually, months—the Greek government has very clear proposals on how to settle this. It is a matter of convincing the institutions, the three institutions—the ECB, the European Central Bank; the International Monetary Fund; the European Commission—that the ways of yesteryear, the ways of the last five years, were not solving the problem, that we need deeper reforms. We need to get rid of the idea that austerity is going to end the debt crisis. We need an investment package for Greece. And we need, together with our partners and institutions, to agree on a reform mechanism, a reform package, that attacks here in Greece the worst cases of rent-seeking, the oligarchy, the various cartels, instead of targeting the little people, the pensioners who are living on $600 a month, as if that is a reform that would work.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, Yanis Varoufakis, what will you do if Europe expels you from the euro?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Europe is not going to expel us from the euro. I refuse to believe that Europe would ever operate that way. Remember that since the end of the Second World War, European peoples and their governments have been working tirelessly to bring closer integration together. Nobody in Europe wants to begin the process of disintegration, over what is, after all, a very small philosophical difference of opinion regarding how to stabilize a small economy like Greece.

Our position is that, folks, the last five years offered decisive proof that this program that you had agreed with previous governments was not working, and now we need to reboot it, we need another one. And we need one that makes perfect sense, that is completely undogmatic, and which does two major things: Firstly, it removes the austerity-driven logic from the scene, because it’s self-defeating and it’s pushing debt up rather than down by attacking incomes from which the debts will have to be repaid; and secondly, deep reforms that attack the malignancies of the Greek social economy, and in particular, the oligarchy and the very gross level of inequality, which is adding to the crisis. When you are turning a society like Greece into less equal, into a more unequal society, and you reduce the tax base by allowing the rich to get away without paying their taxes, to have tax immunity, and constantly to be looking at small-scale parasitic behavior while neglecting the grand-scale parasitic behavior, then you’re simply making a bad thing worse.

And believe you me, our proposals are eminently sensible. We are bombarding the other side with reasonableness. We want to come to a conclusion very quickly. We were prepared months ago to come to an agreement. We’re working tirelessly to forge this agreement, for the benefits of Greeks, of Europeans and the global community.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanis Varoufakis, we want to thank you for being with us, the finance minister of Greece. In the January 2015 general election—


AMY GOODMAN: —he was elected to the Greek Parliament, representing Syriza, and took office in the new government of Alexis Tsipras soon afterwards. He’s a political economist, professor and author of some 15 books, including The Global Minotaur: America, the True Origins of the Financial Crisis and the Future of the World Economy, as well as the book, A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we remember Pedro Albizu Campos. Stay with us.

News Tue, 21 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400